Monday, April 07, 2014

Design Journal #4: Breaking Up My Game

Welcome to my design journal entry # 4.  In case you missed the first three, you can find them HERE, HERE, and HERE.
I’ve brought this up before, but I use a Design Outline when I create a game.  I think about the different aspects of my RPGs very compartmentally.  Chargen is one things.  Resolution is another.  Character Advancement is third.  Equipment is its own thing.  Now, all of these different aspects are tied together thematically in my current RPG, but I work on them separately.  So I got to thinking: If each of these are separate in my mind, why I am I putting them all in the same book?
Now clearly, separating the core rules of a game into separate books is as old as RPGs themselves, right?  So I’m not breaking any new ground by doing this, but I have noticed that games which are not following in D&D’s footsteps (and even many games that are) have gone away from a multi-book approach.  This just was not working for me.
I want a character creation (Chargen) process that is more elaborate than what I currently get out there.  Therefore, I am pulling that entire process out into its on manual.  All the combat, resolution, spell casting, and character advancement stuff runs off very similar mechanics.  So that’s going in its own book.  The player options, equipment lists, spells, powers, feats, etc. have their own book.  So will the GM stuff.  And finally the setting books will be separate from all the rules. 
The reason I’m doing this is because is, I want these concepts to be digestible.  Packing all this into a 200+ page tome just seems ridiculous to me.  I wouldn’t want to read that from cover to cover.  I know I’d skip a lot, or just make assumptions.  I want to present my game in bite-size chunks that are an easy read while you eat at the dinner table or ride the train to work. 
So that means I’ll probably have some saddle-stitched, kinda homely looking books when I get done.  That’s fine with me.  I am so over having a pretty cover.  For me, the game needs to work.  Then it will sell itself.  My goals for this game are modest atthis point anyway.
Anyway, the lesson from today’s entry is this: don’t lock yourself into producing everyone in a single volume because it looks like it will save costs or because that’s what your favorite author did.  Evaluate the needs of your game and the needs of your target audience.  If splitting everything up into their component parts works for you, then embrace that.  You’ll be glad you did.


Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Does Setting Still Matter? part 5


I haven’t written about Setting since2006, and that entry wasn’t very good.  I’m going to update my thoughts on Setting very briefly here today.

Why is Setting important?  Yes, it’s an integral part of design.  Yes, it’s one of the five areas (according to Forge Theory) of exploration.  Yes, it sells lots of supplements.  But that’s not what I’m talking about.

Setting is important because it serves two primary functions: (1) it gives the players some creative restraints with which they can build their stories and (2) it keeps out useless, conflicting, and often counter-productive Setting elements that creep in when there’s a vacuum.

Let’s break down #1.  Creative constraints (i.e. hard boundaries for play) actually breed creativity, not quash it.  People need some sort of hand-holds, or “hooks” as the term is commonly used in RPGs, to give them a foundation.  There have to be certain things that everyone agrees are true before we can start making up stuff that might or might not be true (roleplaying).  

Creating a rich setting sparks the readers’ imaginations.  If the Setting is designed well and communicated clearly, the players can instantly see where their characters should fit in and have a myriad of ideas about what their characters can do.  A good example of this is Hero Wars.  Set in Glorantha, the setting is this game is all about the oncoming apocalypse.  The PCs know the world is doomed, but they are to be heroes none-the-less.  Anyone familiar with Norse mythology should easily be able to relate to that scenario.  It’s easy to image what a hero fighting for a doomed cause might look like, act like, and die like.  It’s beautiful.  And it makes the games memorable.

As mentioned, the second purpose of Setting in an RPG is to keep out counter-productive Setting elements.  By this, I mean unfocussed, player-created Setting elements.  If no Setting is provided in the rules, the players will start adding their own.  If five people start trying to guide the exploration of the Setting in five different directions all at once, you’re going to get a pretty incoherent story.   Even worse, people will fall back on crappy entertainment tropes they’ve learned from watching TV, movies, or reading Twilight novels (shudder).

Let’s look at GURPS.  GURPS prides itself on being totally Setting agnostic.  “You can play anything anywhere!” it likes to brag.  The problem with this is everyone might not be on the same page.  We might have a mystery campaign on our hands and one person has Sherlock Holmes in his mind, while another is channeling Dr. Who, and another is introducing plot elements from MacGyver, and still another thought that this was a caper campaign like Leverage.  These things are not compatible and will very likely lead to arguments, wasted moments of play, unfulfilled expectations, and big ‘ole dose of the 20:4 ratio.

So, okay, we should at least state that the game is a fantasy, science fiction, gothic horror, or some other sort of genre, right?  That’s enough of a Setting to get play rolling, isn’t it?

Let’s look at D&D.  Since 1978-or thereabouts-D&D has had three core books: The Player’s Handbook, The Dungeon Master’s Guide, and the Monster Manual.  From these games it’s clear we’re playing fantasy.  But what kind of fantasy?  Are we playing a lower-power fantasy like the Lord of Rings?  High powered like the Silmarilion?  Same author.  Totally different themes.  Do animals talk and do whimsical things like in Lewis?  Is it a high-powered magic-filled campaign like Vance?  Just saying something is “fantasy” or “horror” doesn’t help.  It certainly doesn’t establish what conflicts might exist between the NPCs and whether or not they’ll be relevant to the players.  It doesn’t establish group expectations as to what type of play is in-bounds or out-of-bounds.  It doesn’t give the GM much to go on other than all the books, comics, and movies he’s familiar with.  In short, it doesn’t help keep out all the crappy motifs Hollywood and New York have pushed on us their various media over the last century.  

I’m not saying that you need to produce a Setting on the scale of Forgotten Realms or Ptolus.  In fact, my personal feelings on massive settings like that is they reduce creative freedom rather than support it.  

What I am saying is that your game needs a setting.  If only to keep out disruptive content that you never intended to be part of play.  Mass media is not the friend of RPG designers.  Often, it is the enemy.  And giving your players something to work with will when it comes to your Setting will increase enjoyment of your designs.



Addendum:  There are exceptions of course.  Prime Time Adventures and Universalis do not have default Settings.  However, Setting is an integral part of play in those games, so by the time the story starts, everyone actually is on the same page WRT when and where the action will take place.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Happy Holidays 2013!

Just wanted to wish everyone a very safe and joyful holiday season. May you find mercy, relief, and happiness with those whom you spend your time over the next week!

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Design Journal #3: Distractions


So last time I talked about brainstorming and the time before that about initial concept.  Today, I’m going to talk about “Cook Time.”  Cook Time is when you leave a design alone for a while and let it stew, steam, and simmer in your imagination. 

Sometimes cook time is intentional.  Take Vincent Baker’s In a Wicked Age.  It started out as the Cheap and CheeseyAdventure Generator.  But Vincent gave it time to cook and it turned into a really fun and challenging RPG. 

In other cases, cook time is thrust upon the designer.  This is the case for me.  My mother-in-law was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer just as I was beginning to write this game.  She’s still fighting it to this day.  As you can well imagine, it’s been tough on the family, and naturally I’ve had to take over a lot of the chores and responsibilities my wife and I used to share.  That’s fine and that’s the way it should be.

Consequently, I’ve not been able to work on my game.  But this is not a bad thing!  And if you find yourself in this sort of situation, do not dismay!  The time off will give you a chance to reflect on your initial work, rethink it, and come back to it some time later to see if it’s still the game you want.  Delays like this can give you clarity and help you see where your ignorance, biases, or sacred cows got in the way of what you really wanted to do.

This is a short entry aimed at those of you who want to be RPG designers but have come up against something that blocks your progress.  Whether it’s a design that’s “just not right” for some reason or it’s personal matters that eat up all your time, I want to encourage you.  It’s an okay thing.  Rushing a game to the finish line so you can have it by GenCon is not the way to create a quality piece.  Don’t be afraid of cook time.  If your game is truly close to your heart, like mine is to me, then your patience and courage will be rewarded.  You can get it done.  You will get it done.  I have faith in you!



Late Edit: for another example of how a designer deals with this sort of thing, check out this link:

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Equipment Lists - A Lament


How boring is an equipment list?  Ugh, it’s got to be the most tedious yet necessary thing in a fantasy or science fiction RPG.  Everyone (or close to everyone) loves the little fiddly bits you get with a new supplement: new weapons, new electronics, new armor types.  Each new thing is just a sight modification of the old stuff, but it’s still cool, right?  Well, it’s not cool enough for me.

You know what I would like to see?  Answer: an equipment list that sparks the players’ imaginations and prompts new avenues of play.

For instance, how cool would it be if an equipment list had five entries for Long Sword or Laser Pistol?  What if each entry showed how the weapon or item could be improved using different components or techniques for making it?  Even better, what if the equipment list rules gave hints about how the characters had to quest to find the right material, the right tinkerer, the right artisan, or whatever to make the weapon something beyond its mundane, default entry?

So, take a laser pistol for instance.  A pistol might have 5 attributes: weight, hitting power, accuracy, durability, and other.  The default material on the equipment list would be the cheapest and least reliable material- you know, the kind of laser pistol you would buy at the Wal-Marts of the future.  Then, elsewhere in the equipment section, the rules would give a list of materials that would reduce the weight of the gun, increase its hitting power and accuracy, make it more durable, and the “other” category in this case would be # of shots per battery pack.

In addition to the improved materials, the rules would tell the players how they could fabricate the materials or how to purchase/find the materials.

In a fantasy world, it would give names of weaponsmiths, artists, alchemists, etc. where they could get the blade sharpened to a keen edge, the pommel weight reduced to balance the weapon, or magical enchantments to make it more powerful.

Equipment lists are so mundane in most games, but I think they can add a lot of depth to a campaign if the designer just takes the time to think about how awesome weapons are in the first place and the different ways heroes in the stories we love to read have tried to make them awesomer.



Wednesday, November 13, 2013

What is 'Chopping the World in Two' ?


Chris Chinn coined this phrase a year or two ago.  Basically he asked, “if narration is a part of your resolution system, what mechanics in your game stop a player from saying, ‘If I win, I chop the world in half.”  This is a severe problem and it’s a design flaw that has shown up manytimes, especially after Dogs in the Vineyard was released.  My own Hierarchy is an excellent example of a game that suffers from this problem.
In Hierarchy, players can raise the stakes in a conflict at will.  There’s no mechanical stop-gap to prevent them from betting the fate of the entire world in a single contest.  This, of course, is terrible.  The design relies total on the Social Contract to keep things in check.  That’s possible to some extent, but there are a lot of shades of gray between “my character smacks yours across the face and leaves” and “I chop the world in half.”  It can be hard for a group, especially a novice group, to enforce reasonable limits on narration trading during resolution without some mechanical backup.
It is tempting to allow narration to take the characters in any direction the play-group desires, but narration, like all things, needs constraint to breed creativity.  Putting mechanical limits on what can be brought into a contest is a necessary part of design.
So what are some ways to do that? 
First, you can include a “back-out” clause.  Ben Lehman did this in Polaris, where a player in a conflict can negate an escalation by an opposing player by saying, “You ask too much.”  So, by designing a way one player to return the stakes back to an earlier a previous state, the game can prevent things from getting out of hand.
Second, you can set explicit options for what can be at stake.  For instance, you can say the players may risk “wealth, status, or health in a contest but not life or relationships.”  In this case, you are setting up parameters for the resolution system and prescribing what is in bounds and out of bounds for conflicts.
Third, you can have a way to escalate a conflict with a cost and a cap.  Dogs in the Vineyard does this.  Escalating a conflict from words to fists is possible, but doing so puts the character at greater risk.  There needs to be some sort of cap on how much a player can risk when escalating a conflict.  Often this is the character’s life.  It doesn’t have to be that way, but there needs to be an explicit way to cap the escalation.
Fourth, you can have a resolution system that just doesn’t allow narration to set the stakes.  Task resolution does this.  Many forms of conflict resolution do as well.  You could have the GM always set the stakes, or do it by total group consent.  Whatever.
Fifth, as part of the Chargen and prep work for play, the players can set up their own parameters for what is allowable and what is not during narration of stakes in a conflict.  Sometimes, in a inter-planar superhero game, chopping a world in half may actually make sense!  Cool!  But it needs to happen in accordance with the players’ expectation for the game, the designer’s vision for the game, and the limits of the Social Contract.  Letting the players hash this out before play allows for really powerful characters and situations without breaking the mechanics.
The main thing is, don’t let the power of narration get out of control.  Narration is awesome.  It is a lot of fun, but it is also dangerous.  It can take a well-designed game and wreck it.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Design Journal #2: Brainstorming


A few weeks ago I wrote up my DesignDiary #1.  Today, I’m continuing this saga.  But before I get to today’s issue: a rabbit chaser.  Every designer has to deal with personal distractions and tragedy along the road to publication.  Who knows how many thousands of would-be designers have had to abandon their games due to addiction, loss, disease, or what-have-you.  I feel the pain of those designers and my life is an exemplar of that struggle.  So hopefully, this design series will serve not only to instruct nascent game-makers in the art of design and publishing but also instruct them on the art of dealing with real-life barriers that come up during the process.  More on that later, tho.  On to brainstorming.

I want to stress to you just how important to the design process letting your mind generate ideas and at the same time, writing those ideas down are.  The human mind, especially mine, is weak.  I can’t remember every mechanic or piece of trivia I come up with when imagining how my game will work.  Once I have envisioned play, I begin the process of brainstorming.  Everyone has their own method for doing this.  My post today is descriptive not prescriptive, but if you like my methodology, feel free to employ it in part or in whole :)

Back in the olden days (1998-2001) I kept stacks of composition notebooks around me all the time.  Each notebook would be dedicated to a different topic: Chargen, Resolution System, Rewards, Magic, Setting, etc. etc. etc.  After my first game was published in 2002, I switched to computers.

Now, I keep a single file with all my notes.  I have a specific system that I use, and I’ve mentioned it before.  My notes are kept in a stream of consciousness outline.  I let the inspiration flow, and I type it out as it comes.  Sometimes, I still jot things down on random scraps of paper when a computer isn’t handy, but it all goes into my file in the order it came to me.  As an example, here is the first half-page or so of my design notes for this game: NOTES EXCERPT

I have to confess one thing.  The “Dungeons” label for the game came after the entry on Moldvay and Keep on the Borderlands.  It wasn’t until then, I had even the faintest idea what I wanted from this thing.  In a future post, I’ll explain how I arrived at that decision.

Anyway, I find that keeping my notes this way lets me see where I made decisions in the design process and why I made those decisions.  Sometimes, when you get half-way or even 2/3 of the way through a text, you forget why you made a certain rule.  You look at something and go, “What the…Why’d I do this?”  Keeping my notes in a stream of consciousness, helps me understand my game’s purpose SO much better.

Also, it helps me organize my text.  I have an outline ready to go that will only need a small amount of tweaking before I dive right into the writing process.  I found that it makes writing my games more efficient.  This isn’t fool-proof, though.  As you can see, those notes are quite busy in some places.  Sometimes I’ll copy and paste a section of my notes into its own document just to separate it from the clutter as I’m writing.

The entire document is well over 20 pages now, but not everything will make it in.  Stuff I’m not using stays in the notes, but I might make it “strikethrough” or highlight it in a different color so I know not to include it in my text.   

Anyhow, that will just about do it for my entry today.  Brainstorming is the second step I take after envisioning play.  I have kind of a wacky system for doing.  Yours could be even wackier.  If this is your first time writing a game, I recommend putting all your ideas down somewhere.  Whether it’s on paper, on the net, or in a file: write them down!  If you don’t, I promise you’ll forget.