Thursday, December 29, 2005

A Side Rant

I won’t do this too often here, but every now and then there’s going to be something that needs to be said. Here it is: The next person I see link some newbie poster the two articles on Fantasy Heartbreaker is going to get one angry PM from me. I am sick and tired of people using those two articles as a club to beat some poor guy who’s just looking for some feedback and a place to belong. Enough already!

Time and Time and Time and Time again I see people ON THEIR FIRST POST in the thread link them the Fantasy Heartbreaker articles. And half the time (maybe more) it’s linked by people who have never written, let alone published an RPG. Who are you to decide who is worthy to write a game and who isn’t? It’s like swatting down some poor kid’s dream before he even has a chance to see if it will fly. Linking those articles to a newbie poster isn’t feedback folks, it’s bullying. That’s right, you’re a bully.

Not once in those articles did Ron ever say they didn’t have a right to be published. Never did he say that those games aren’t fun to play. And he certainly never established a pattern on whacking someone over the head with them to keep him or her from designing their game!

And more than anything, people who typically link them forget about one of the most important components of a Fantasy Heartbreaker: Publishing. Here’s a quote from the first article: “And considering when most were published, before most printers changed their policies regarding small print runs, print costs must have been enormous, in the $6000-plus category for standard paperbacks. Some of the games contain cardstock inserts, too. Vanity is vanity, sure, but we are not talking about small sums. …they are not selling direct to end-users, they are selling to the tiers. A limited presence in stores via "slush-fund" ordering is the best they can hope for, meaning no in-store sales or even recognition of their presence. And even if they get to end-users, their aggressively retro mode of play and presentation cannot compete with those games which defined that mode of play and command the loyalty of those who value it. In terms of the tiers, these games are what define small press: imitative game design, low-budget presentation, and minimal customer interest. To the retailer of the 1990s, such a game is not re-ordered, even if it sells.”

Now, can you honestly tell me that from the first post the newbie makes you can say whether or not they plan to sink thousands of dollars into publishing the game to sell to distributors and not end users? Can you assure me that their publishing plans aren’t just to turn it into a pdf and sell it on Drivethru RPG? I doubt it.

So instead of bullying someone out of writing a game, dig deeper. Ask them pointed questions that might lead them to A) changing the style of their game or B) keep them from sinking large amounts of cash into it. But don’t tell them that their game sucks! Don’t tell them they’re automatically a Heartbreaker because they said the word “fantasy” in their post. Step up to the table and give them a real feedback post that will help them improve their design. Linking articles on the Forge in your first post in the thread is a coward’s way to feedback.

On your third of fourth post of trying to help this guy, then maybe it would be time to link it and be done with him. But only after you give your best effort to help them improve their design and they just don’t seem to understand or care about what you’re trying to get at. But every time I see those links in someone’s first post, I get irate.


For further reading along these lines, check out this article by Joshua BishopRoby.

Monday, December 26, 2005

What are "The Big Three" ?

This is what I would call the first post that really fits into what this website is about. My mission is to provide entry tools into the world of RPG design. What I’m examining here is a tool that is used very often at the Forge and to a lesser degree on RPGnet. I have personally used this tool to create my three entries into Ronnies contest run be Adept Press (at the time of this publishing, two of them had won a Ronny award). This tool is basically a set of three simple, yet piercing questions about what an RPG is and what it can do. These three questions have been dubbed by some “The Big Three.”

First, some historical background (or really lack thereof) on The Big Three. I can’t tell you, and I doubt anyone else can either, who first used and created them. My guess is they evolved over time, probably one by one, as the need to create a framework to discuss an RPG design became apparent. As to whom first called them The Big Three, again I have no answer. However, the history of them are not nearly as important as their use.

So enough already, what are The Big Three?


1. What is your game about?

2. What do the characters do?

3. What do the players do?

At first glance, how simple could you get? Each has only a measly five words. No follow up questions are tacked on. No real theory jargon can be found in any of them. So what’s the big deal? The big deal is that for many, many designers these questions are the hardest questions they’ve ever had to answer.

I first wrote about them here at the Forge in Troy’s Standard Rant #1 and furthered their explanation in Troy’s Standard Rant #2. Those are prerequisite readings for discussing these questions on this site.

These questions can be so hard to answer for designers because they are so attached to old-style preconceived notions about the way an RPG should look and play. I often, often have seen answers from people when asked question #1 like “The point is to have fun, isn’t that what all games are about?” Or worse, I’ve seen things like “Aren’t characters and players basically the same thing?” These are the kinds of newbish answers I gave when I was first asked them concerning Ember Twilight. I didn’t understand the questions. I didn’t try to understand them, and for it, my game did not reach its full potential. If you don’t understand these questions, and refuse to understand them, you’ve got a very long very hard road ahead of you.

But there is hope for those who want to seize a hold of this design tool. First, discard all notions you have of what an RPG “should be.” For an excellent post and discussion on this topic (which I will revisit later here on this blog) check out Josh Bishop Roby’s “Games, The Standard, and Spoons” on his blog. Second, jot down your ideas first. Don’t start to create a game based off these three questions. The likelihood of that working out for ya isn’t too great IMHO. Write out briefly what you would like a session, an adventure, a campaign, to look like. Decide what’s most important to you in your game and then come back to these questions. Third, write out a brief “snip-it” answer for each that will give other people a good idea of what your game is, then write out a much lengthier answer for yourself. The lengthier answer will be your guide for design. Fourth, take your answers and design over to the Forge and post it in Indie Design. I cannot stress that fourth step enough. Get feedback-get feedback-get feedback.

Oh, and be prepared to change and tweak your answers as you go. The feedback you will get will have a significant impact on your design so remain fluid. No design is perfect on the first try.

The last part of this post is to open it up for questions about the Big Three. That’s what we’re here for after all, to ask questions.

Quick note to veteran designers. This post probably isn’t for you. I welcome your feedback, but much of the advise I give here is for first time designers. What you think an RPG should be and what a fresh-out-of-the-oven guy (much like myself) thinks will be two very different things.



Sunday, December 25, 2005

What is 'Diaspora' ?


This is the first real welcome to my blog. This place is intended for those who are newer to RPG design and theory. Heavy stuff like “how have the nuances of vanilla narrativism affected mainstream game design…?” is out of the scope for this blog. Instead, something like “how is the term narrativism used?” is much more appropriate.

The title of this post asks “What is a diaspora?” defines it as this: “A dispersion of an originally homogeneous entity, such as a language or culture.” I’ve seen this word thrown around a few times lately concerning those who participated at the Forge. For our purposes on this blog it describes the phenomenon of former and present Forge participants branching out into other forums and blogs (like this one) to continue the discussion of RPG theory now that the two main theory forums have closed at

What does that mean for me specifically and what I’m doing with this new blog thing? Well, I’m hoping to provide a gateway for people who are new to rpg design but burn with the desire to produce something- people much like myself. What it means is that I hope that what I post here has an impact, a positive impact, on new/nascent designers. I’ll be using this blog to pose questions to those who are contemplating or in the middle of designing an rpg. Sometimes I’ll give what I think are the answers; sometimes I won’t have an answer at all.

And this is where we come to something very, very important. I call it the Universal Disclaimer. Everyone who ever reads anything at my blog should be familiar with it. It states, “What I propose here is one, and only one way of doing things out of many. It is not the Law. It is not the One True Way. It is not 100% right every time for every person. It is, however, what I believe to be helpful and what I believe works.”

Sometimes people mistake a person’s suggestion that was given on a micro scale and assume it was meant for a macro scale. Don’t make that mistake here. For what I write, the world is this blog. If you choose to take it beyond this place and apply to your own life and style, be prepared for slightly different results- perhaps better results. This place is here to offer advice and help, not as a solitary lighthouse pointing the way to the Promised Land. There are many blogs, many forums, and many other lighthouses. Choose which one fits you best then stick with it, but do not mistake it as the one with a monopoly on the truth. None can lay a claim to that.

Be back soon! :)



Saturday, December 24, 2005

Back from the Islands


Just returned tonight from my honeymoon. The big island of Hawaii is a sweet place to vacation if you ever get the chance. My new wife and I will be putting our house back in order tonight and cleaning things up. Expect a serious post about what this blog will become in the next day or so.



Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Setting the Table


So let’s talk about how this blog and how I plan to use it. The title of it “Socratic Design” gives away some of the premise. One of my favorite websites,, defines the Socratic Method as: “A pedagogical technique in which a teacher does not give information directly but instead asks a series of questions, with the result that the student comes either to the desired knowledge by answering the questions or to a deeper awareness of the limits of knowledge.”

I don’t presume to call myself a teacher when it comes to RPGs, but I do believe the method may have some uses for RPG design. It’s my hope that through questioning our preconceptions, our theories, our own designs, and the old way of doing things, we will come to a greater understanding of how to design better games.

Each post I make will be centered around a question or series of questions. Sometimes I’ll provide what I think might be an answer. Sometimes I won’t. And just because I submit an answer does not mean that the discussion is over. Far from it. The discussion has just begun!

Also from time to time, I may use this as a sounding board for my own designs. Obviously that will entail questions, many questions. But it will give us a few games to talk about and see how this whole Socratic Method of Design will work.

The first few posts I make will be rehashes of stuff I posted on The Forge. That will help build a foundation for all of us to work from. Don’t know when that will come, tho. I will be happily married to the beautiful Miss Rebecca Scott in three days in Kona, Hawaii. So until then, take care of each other :)



Monday, December 12, 2005

Opening A Big Ol' Can of Worms


Welcome to Socratic Design! If you're looking for answers on how to write a RPG, you've come to the wrong place. I have only questions. But through these questions, perhaps together we can achieve where alone we fail. My purpose with this blog is to pose questions, accumulate answers, and spread the wisdom from all contributors to all nascent RPG designers out there. At times I'll be opinionated- that's my right. Sometimes I'll be wrong, and then I'll recant. Sometimes I'll offer something insightful, then we'll celebrate. And every time, I'll care about furthering our cause of promoting Independent RPGs.

This project may be beyond me. I am but a Novice in RPG theory and design. Perhaps that is best tho. My aim is to target those who are just starting out, those who are most like myself. Together we can explore the realms of Independent RPG publishing and design.

Expect another post soon. I'll need to set the table and build the foundation of how all this is going to work.