I've mentioned before that women respond to Deadly Dowagers in a cathartic way and that this does to a certain extent undermine the intended satire. But I respect the experiences of women so I leaned into the catharsis instead of trying to be heavier-handed with the satire. I also know that author's intent doesn't really mean a whole lot compared to what messages the audience actually receive from the work. But because it only took a week for someone to wildly miss the point on BGG, I thought I'd share what I was actually trying to do in the game.
The first iteration of Deadly Dowagers was "Inheritance," which explored how the aristocracy built wealth. The point then was to show that the nobility hadn't always been that way but came from somewhere. Not much of a message.
When I pivoted to A Much Better ThemeTM, I committed to the players being the villains. I wanted the murder of the men to be a difficult decision emotionally because I wanted the game to be clear that the women are the baddies. Society is also to blame in the setting, for sure; that pressure is there and drives the decisions the women make. That is also intentional. The game is a meditation on what forces are at play when otherwise "good" people go bad. And lest you mistake my meaning, greed and ambition are the main driving forces, with societal forces following along behind.
But what of the men? Do they deserve their fate? I only gave two art direction instructions to the publisher. One was to make sure the mills were water and not wind, because we committed to setting the game specifically in England. The other came after a question about whether the men should be boorish or evil looking. I nixed that hard. The men have to be neutral or the theme does not work. (The fact that this note seems to have spawned art that is best described as husband NFTs is endlessly amusing to me.) If the men deserve their fate, the satire is lost. If the men are too sympathetic, the catharsis is lost. The experience of the game hangs on the men's portraits.
So what is the satire? I mention regularly that the theme is a metaphor, which most women take to mean that the husbands metaphorically stand in for all the men in their lives who have harmed them. And I don't want to take that catharsis from them. But the metaphor in the satire is that the men stand in for anyone who is dehumanized and harmed for the sake of someone else's profit. (Calling the game anti-capitalist would be much more accurate than misandrist.) By giving the men names and faces and a relationship to the player, the game is doubling down on the message that their fate is wrong; the whole system is wrong.
But the solution is not for the women to be demur and return to their traditional roles. This is why the game is set in the Victorian era. If you only know one thing about the Victorian era, it is that women were highly repressed. So I rely on that outside knowledge to add tension to the theme. Because the systemic repression of women was wrong. But harming people for power and profit is also wrong. There is no right in this theme, except to learn and grow when the game is done.
If the theme were played for laughs, or even for catharsis only, I wouldn't have allowed it to reach publication. Like if the Hunger Games trilogy were only a page-turner about kids killing each other and not a treatise on war and pacifism. I believe the message is what renders the content acceptable or unacceptable. Players engaging with the content on a surface level only was very much a concern during playtesting. Why I'm comfortable with the game being out in the wild is that players know, even when they can't explain why, that the theme was carefully crafted to be about something other than shock and awe.
The musical Chicago isn't a celebration of murder, but an indictment of the American justice system and the media. But it's also fun and a bit silly at the same time. Anyone mature enough to play a game about serial murder is mature enough to handle that a theme can be both irreverent and serious.
This is my defense for Deadly Dowagers. I don't expect author's intent to carry much weight. But maybe it is helpful to know there was an intent.
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