Sam Horne from Games Unbound

Interview with Sam, President of Games Unbound

I interviewed Sam about his TTRPG background and how he’s used applied RPGs in Games Unbound, an organization dedicated to bringing fun and inclusive tabletop RPGs to kids and teens!

Note: this is a transcripted interview, edited for ease of reading

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

So my name is Sam Horne, also known as Shammo around the table. I have been running D&D games since the early aughts, about 2002 – 2003 maybe 2004.  Well, I’ve been running D&D games professionally since 2004, but I’ve been running D&D games before that since almost 2000.

I got into RPGs when I was really young, but I am a trained educator.  I have a masters in education from the University of Maryland, College Park.  

I was a classroom teacher for 3 years before leaving it, because I struggled with the bureaucracy of it.  I love the kids.  I did not like the system and what it was doing to them.  

It’s interesting because the thing that drew me to education in the first place was actually running role playing games and seeing the positive effects that could have for kids.  I wanted to be able to reflect that somehow, and I thought education was the way to do that, but what I found was that… no, role playing games themselves are the way to do that.

I ended up coming back to the starting place and just focusing my energy on seeing how far role playing games could really go in creating positive outcomes for players of all ages, particularly kids, but certainly players of all ages

It’s a noble cause; I’ve been playing tabletop RPGs with my kid and seen a level of growth that I don’t think just doing school lessons would have accomplished.

When did you start playing tabletop RPGs and what is your favorite tabletop RPG moment? 

So, when I started playing tabletop RPGs I was actually much younger.  I was a little kid, and these are the kind of stories you hear about where I would play Dungeons and Dragons or something like that, but was I really playing that?  Does it count when you aren’t really using the rules, and it’s mostly just a bragging competition about, “My 25th level thief can do this….  How did you get to be level 25?… oh,  I killed this tarrasque.  I snuck up on it.”

So you know, I tend to sort of discount the younger days as like, while they were great flights of fancy, I don’t know if i’d really call them any different from any other playing pretend that you do as a kid.

They weren’t really structured, you know, there were some dice. I don’t think I paid much attention to what the results were.

Then, I came back to it when I was in early high school, in 9th grade. I discovered an after-school program through the city in my area that was running role playing games, and that was the first place where I actually found myself.  I had all sorts of identity formation problems, and everything, and that was the first place where I felt seen.  

That’s that, but as for favorite RPG moments…. I looked at that question when you sent it to me, and it’s been a long career… it’s a cacophony of different moments.

I think one of my favorites, just to get one out there, is actually an earlier one. I had a kid who was kind of misanthropic.  They didn’t want to make any friends. They wanted to kind of be the thorn in everyone’s side, and you know they clearly felt left out, but they were denying anyone the chance to like them.

They were like, if I put myself out there, you’re gonna reject me, so I’m gonna make you reject me because then I have control.

I ended up “punishing” their character for some of their behavior, but in a way that was not normal.  Rather than saying like, you know, you lose experience or something inane like that, I gave their character a condition where they would occasionally suffer a Hollywood synesthesia where they would get hit, and they would start to taste colors.  Or they would start to assign different colors to various enemies, like that enemy was now plaid, and colors and patterns and things like that.

It became this, this thing called color sickness as a running joke with their character.

Their character went from being evil to, it was a funny thing, the character stayed evil, but they went from being the outcast of the group that no one liked really in character or out of character, to being very much part of the group.

They’d get hit and were busy trying to write down their hp, and other members of their party were like, “Hey, don’t forget to ask Shammo about the sickness!”

It was something funny to all of them, and they all wanted to hear what was next, so they were all chiming in. Then, when he did evil things in character, it went from being like, “Why are you like this man?” to “Why did we take our eyes off him?”

He was like, “Hey, guys….”, and they’re like, “no no no…. you earned that one.”

They left him alone at the top of a shaft where people were climbing down a rope, and he cut the rope, and they’re sort of like… yeah, we really should have seen this coming. 

He wouldn’t say he’s sorry, but he’d just be like… yeah I was sitting there.

I’d be like you really should have seen it coming like I don’t know what you were all we’re thinking he was gonna do, but i’m not terribly surprised and they agreed it made sense.

And I really liked it. The ability to turn someone from sort of this out-group character to in-group, to make them have fun, to be able to socialize freely with their peers, it was a big moment for me to see how this can really do some things.

There have been other moments like that too.  There have been moments of parents coming up to me saying, like, “My child has ASD, and they’ve never been able to make friends before, and thank you… now they have friends, and they’re reaching out and they’re making their own social connections at school.”

I’m like… sorry roll back a moment, your kid’s on the spectrum?  How nice of you to tell me this after they’re done playing with me.  I mean, I’m glad it worked out, I guess.

I feel like Tabletop RPGs just kind of do that.  They should have told you in advance, so you could help them out more, but I also think they do just naturally provide a frame for making those connections, and the rules are a little more clear, and it’s just a little easier than going up to somebody and talking.

I absolutely agree.  I agree 100%, and I very rarely actually had a problem from someone not telling me in advance; it’s happened maybe twice and there’s an avalanche and stories on the other side.  It’s definitely something I took note of early – it’s just the ways in which RPGs can reach people that normally other systems or approaches cannot reach for sure alright.

What inspired you to start Games Unbound

We were all coming up out of the same after school program I mentioned before. That was a city program, and the person who ran that program ran private games, and we were seeing a lot of these effects.  As we aged up, we didn’t leave, and we started taking on some of the spare work that the person running this program couldn’t do. 

We were noticing these effects and cataloging and asking: Wow, RPGs can really do some stuff!  What could they do if we were even more intentional about this?  What could they do if we really dug in and tried to go for it?  How far can we carry this model?

That had always been at the back of our minds, and we tried to push that through the sort of way we were doing it with the runner of that program and everything.  It really came into sharp contrast during the pandemic because everything had to go virtual, and whereas before, it had theoretically been centered around the person running the program, we had to really pick it up.  We set up a system to run virtual games and administrate everything.

It really was us doing a lot of the work, and the shake out of that, unfortunately, was financial disagreements with the person who ran the program.  So, at that point we’re like… we’re having these financial disagreements, and we’re clearly able to do this work.  We have these ideas about ways that [we] could be more intentional. What are we gonna do?

We talked it over, and we decided it’s time to try our own thing,  That was how Games Unbound came to be. 

We incorporated that we’re gonna run these games.  We’re gonna be more intentional about it.  We’re gonna really stress themes of inclusion and ways that this game can reach out to people.  And, we’re going to see if we can carry a business model on that.  

We didn’t know how it would turn out.  That was April last year that we officially incorporated, and, since then, it has been a mad roller coaster ride.  It’s, so far, working out better than any of us hoped it would.

That’s good. It sounds like a lot of work but It’s kinda like hitting its stride and being what you intended.

Haha, yeah…  Well, I wish we could get a stride!  Right now it’s still like, “We don’t stride in a sprint we only run!”  It’s sort of like sprinting for the last 26 miles.

Can you tell us about games unbound, and some of the stuff that you do?  What makes Games Unbound unique?

So, Games Unbound is approaching games, as I said before, from the intentional perspective of inclusion and outreach and sort of a different model for how games are run and enjoyed with people focusing on social skill development, identity formation, and some academic skill building as well.

This is informed by the fact that it’s a very small company, only 4 people, but I and one of the other 4 people in this company both have masters degrees in education. One of our other people has a degree in communications. The other has been working with TTRPGs longer than any of us.

We’re really approaching this as how we can emphasize the aspects of this game that can be used to help people be better people.  That’s better for themselves, gives a better life…  and we want to focus on those sort of positive outcomes of the game and move away from some of role playing games’ more shadow side.  These are the negative aspects and baggage.  

A lot of people would be like, “Oh, yeah, like the violence…” but it’s like it’s not even that.  It’s more that the games left on their own can encourage a lot of negative interactions and prejudgments.  We wanted to actually use this imperfect medium to help people challenge these general ideas and things that are sort of built into daily life.  Rather than be like, “we’re gonna use these games to challenge racism”… we’re not really actually positioned to do that.  We want, obviously, to be anti racist, but we’re aware of our own position.  We’re a mostly white company, but the game does allow you to challenge basic ideas of the way you prejudge

It allows you to ask: What assumptions are we making going into this social situation?  What are we saying?  Going into this, you decided to fight them but you hadn’t even talked to…. Can you tell me a little bit about why you did that?

We are always coming from a place of saying what you’re doing isn’t wrong, this is your imaginary playground and you’re free to slide the slides however you want.  We’re just going to ask you if you’ve thought about what you’re doing.  We’re not gonna stop you from doing it.

What we see is that a lot of people really resonate with that approach.  They really appreciated the ways in which we were focusing on allowing shy kids a space to shine and have their 6 words.  If they can only say 6 words, those 6 words are going to be the most important words.

We make them realize that they can have a contribution that matters.  It brings them someone out of their shell, or it leaves them comfortable in it but helps them realize that there’s a way to be healthy in that space.   

Getting the kids (as we very often do) who just talk like a fountain, to slow down and take a breath and consider the voices they’re not hearing (I was one of those).  It was a good thing.  We get that you’re talking this much because you’re used to not being heard. So, we’re gonna focus on 1) actually hearing you, but 2) getting you to think about the people who are not being heard because you’re doing this.

We also have a lot of communications with the players themselves.  When they’re younger players we have communications with their parents about what are we looking to do here?  What do we see as the struggles?

On the whole, we don’t do official intakes, but we do still do casual intakes, and we will sort of introduce ourselves to players and get used to what what is their particular approach and style, and what do we need to be aware of so that way we can form the best game for them.

The way we present these games is that this is a collaborative storytelling experience where you control the role of a single character in a story.  You don’t decide the outcomes of what they do, but you decide what they attempt.  You decide what they care about. 

It took me a long time to realize that was different from how a lot of role playing games are portrayed and presented.  They’re presented more adversarially or….

It’s very goal oriented, instead of being about like connecting

Yes!  But then, even on the other side, you have some RPGs that are adversarial, goal- oriented, and just, claim the crown, or whatever and then you have other ones that are like… you need to be more like us that are narratively focused without structures, and you know, make it looser. 

That is not really gonna help my ASD kids. They need the structure. They need those rules systems.  Those are a comfort for them, so finding that sort of happy medium and finding the places that are the best ways to reach out to these players, that’s what Games Unbound strives to do.  It’s about driving to advance that narrative, and to advance inclusion in the space as well. 

[Advancing inclusion] wasn’t a priority we started with because we weren’t sure that we were the right people to have that priority.  We wanted to, and, certainly, we believe in inclusion of the space, but it was like, are we the people to promote it when we’re mostly white?  We were entirely white at that time, but we ended up sort of deciding to try some things. It wasn’t really like “We’re gonna do inclusion, and this is why we’re doing”… it was like, “Hey!  This seems like a cool idea. What if we did this?”

Then, we started doing these things specifically with Penny Arcade Expo, and, in talking to them, we didn’t really think too much about what we were doing.  We just thought this was a cool idea, and something we believed in and something we wanted to support.  But then, I think it was one of their staff who brought it up to us, said, “You realize you’re like willfully supporting inclusion?”

In this case, we were making a game library to support underrepresented marginalized creators, and so we were collecting their games and their bios to present on them.  We were offering if anyone wanted to try their games but didn’t know how, we would explain it or run it for them. 

This staffer came back and was like, “I’m surprised inclusion is not in your values, considering this.”

[I thought], “I am also surprised… now that I hear it coming out of your mouth!”

That became part of our goal, as well, was to make this a better space. 

We have all experienced in some way shape or form the gatekeeping elements of the RPG community, and we’re very much anti-gatekeeping.  We believe that really this is a medium that almost anyone can enjoy, so, we want to emphasize that.  We want to strive against efforts to narrow that definition.

What advice do you have for people who are new to tabletop RPGs or who are looking to introduce a new player, specifically kids and teens?

Number one: don’t fear failure.  

With a lot of people they’re like, “Don’t fear failure.  It’s okay to suck at first and practice.”

No; that’s the wrong way of approaching RPGs. 

Don’t feel failure means that failure is where the magic happens. In terms of RPGs, that meaning is sort of twofold.  

On the one hand, there is no success in RPGs.  There’s no strict definition of success or failure.  It’s a story.  Stories can go any number of different ways. They still work as a story, and therefore they have automatically succeeded.

But people are often afraid that they’re not doing it right. 

What does that mean… doing it right? Are you having fun?  Are you enjoying yourself? …. Yeah….

Then you’re doing it just fine. Don’t let anyone else tell you what it’s supposed to be like or what to think.  If you and your friends are having fun and you’re caring for people’s needs, you’re doing it right.

The second part of that is in stories, a lot of the best moments come out of failing. You know this is part of my teacher [background] seeping in, but something I tell all my players is, “Mistakes are far better teachers than successes.”

If we take the example that you go on the [basketball] court, you shoot a basket, and it goes in, you don’t really think about every step you took to make the basket.  You just did it. But if you miss the basket, then you’re like, why didn’t that work?

So, within that narrative, you can sort of say when you’re failing, that’s when you’re learning.  When you’re succeeding, you may be having fun but you’re not learning as much.  So, don’t fear the bad turn or the tragedy.  There’s lessons in those, and because we have this medium of a space that isn’t our real life, there are no permanent consequences. Everything is always at arm’s length, and we should use that to the utmost of our ability.

Number 2: when it comes to getting kids and teens involved, let yourself play.

If you’re trying to incorporate a new player who’s a kid or a teen, the worst thing you can do is to come at it like an adult.  We don’t realize, and this was one of the reasons I left the classroom form of education, is the extent to which we have been trained into rigid modes of thinking.

We believe things have to be done in a certain way and in a certain manner, and, especially in a space like this, it’s just not true.

Grasp the ridiculous.  If that player wants to ride around on the back of a giant gorilla, don’t say why that can’t happen.  See if there’s a way you can say, “here’s why, that can!” 

Number 3: communicate and respect boundaries

This game is not about getting people to play how you want.  This is a social exchange.

I’m not talking about how the social rules are different, I’m talking about the game itself is a game you play with other people.  It is inherently social, and it cannot escape that fact.  This is not a game you win or lose, no matter what people try to say or make it into.  Winning is having a good time with your group. Losing is not doing that.

So many groups forget that, and you see countless stories, mostly from people who either aren’t talking or are ignoring boundaries.  They’re like… we don’t really need a session 0.

Yes, you do. 

Session 0 is very important, especially with kids.

We weren’t even necessarily doing them for the longest time, because we started doing this before that really was a concept and had a name for session 0, but we still had things like, “Hey, if you all got any phobias, or anything you know, just let me know after class or something.  Give me a heads up, because I never would want to expose you to that.  This isn’t fear factor or something. I’m not going to subject you to your worst fears.  Why would I do that?”

By giving people the structure and interface for respecting boundaries and respecting people, you get a lot more traction and a lot more ability to see these kids the way they need to and want to be seen.

That actually kind of dovetails into what I say is…

Number 4: when you’re trying to involve kids and teens to an extent, you need to let go of what you think kids and teens are.  To an extent, not entirely, but to an extent.

You need to see people and not a monolithic age group.

This is important, because I see a lot of games targeted for kids that have no violence, and, you know, a lot of kids just want to kill something

Some people say, “Well, but they shouldn’t want to.”

No… that’s not actually correct.  They shouldn’t want to kill anybody for real, which is why we give them made up monsters.  We stress the difference between fantasy and reality.

This was something I ran into personally.  For a lot of my life, people were telling me there was nowhere constructive to go with anger, so I just bottled it up, and that had predictably negative consequences.

For our players, we want you to be able to express the emotions you’re feeling.  We want you to be able to be wherever you need to be in your head and get you to a better place. Obviously, if you’re just feeling this anger, and it’s consuming you, we want to work with you on that and make that something that doesn’t rule over your life.

Also, sometimes you’re like… there’s so much wrong in the world, sometimes I wish I could just slay the dragon.  OK.  Sometimes it’s okay to just slay the dragon.  You don’t have to talk it into a better course of action.  

You don’t constantly have to be told how to negotiate or manage yourself in everything.  There’s knowing how to emotionally regulate yourself, and that is something we do stress.

If you’re not just popping off, and you decided this is the way my character would be in the situation… they feel righteous anger towards this, and they want to express that … is that OK?  Yeah!  Go to work!

That’s the point of it is having that freedom in the game space.

But in order to do that, you do need to, to an extent, and I keep saying to an extent, let go of your definition of kids and teens.  Now I say to an extent because, yes, there’s always going to be some recognition of the fact that they don’t have the same experiences.  You’re not gonna subject them to the horrors that too many adults know either firsthand or secondhand, but there is a wide space between that and training wheel games that keep them sheltered and safe where they never experience anything grim or bad.

My players have run into tyranny, they’ve run into just wilful hate, they run into a lot of things.  

Wow… you expose them to so much negativity!  Yes…  Why?  Because the world exposes us to such negativity.  They see it every day. We do them a disservice by pretending it’s not there.

I guess Number 5 would be: don’t forget to have fun.

It should always be fun and a little silly.  Don’t be so serious or like making sure you’re checking boxes about did I hit these points, am I focusing on this theme… It should be fun.

We still improvise a lot.  We’re still riding the waves a lot, and we’re letting the players shape the narrative.  Everyone gets to have agency in the story, and really just has a good time. 

At the end of the day, all the other things that we do are kind of byproducts of the fact that people want to be here and do this.

I totally get you.  Having fun at the end of the day, while being able to kind of have agency within the game, and be able to make those choices and try things out… that’s what builds all of this and makes it possible.  It’s a fantastic learning tool and just a great place to make friends and socialize.  You can feel secure and have a good lower pressure place to experience a lot of this and connect with others.

Also, not assuming what kids know or don’t know.  One of the easiest ones I’ve run into is I’ve discussed biological determinism with kids and people are like, “Well, you really gotta explain that to them”…. But you really don’t.  It’s adults that have trouble understanding that.  Kids have never struggled with that.  We train kids to think that’s a thing. 

I go to kids and ask them if they think that anybody’s just born evil?  They go, “… no.”  And that’s it!  That’s the discussion!

Actually acknowledging that, and stating it out loud when they’re a kid, establishes it and then It’s easier later to not get sucked into somebody else’s like backwards explanation of it.

Exactly!  We’ll talk about it in a game sense like… I can play a goblin?  Of course you can play a goblin!  Why not?  Does it make sense that any creature that can think and make decisions for itself would be automatically one thing or another?

Sam Horne from Games Unbound

Thank you Sam for the awesome interview!  It was great to hear your insights and to learn about Games Unbound!

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