Tuesday, February 28, 2006

So what are we looking for?


This is the fourth and final in a series of shorter articles that will hopefully bring newer designers up to speed on the kinds of expectations I have for this blog and those who help in the Design forum on the Forge have for new games.

In the initial question, when I say “we” I mean “me.” Others can speak for themselves. These last few articles are really intended to get out there what I’d like to see here at Socratic Design and on other game design forums like those at the Forge, RPGnet, and Story Games. I’m not going to be very long winded about it (I hope), because it’s pretty simple.

I have four things I’m really looking for when it comes to deciding how interested I’m going to be in someone’s design:

1. The game is based off the idea that the author is trying to maximize some kind of fun he is already having.
2. The game breaks with Tradition in some way, shape or form.
3. A game where the designer is determined to avoid the publishing aspect of the Heartbreaker.
4. A game that will be finished in one form or another.

So what do I mean by these? First, if someone is designing a game “just cause”, “to participate in the community” or “for fun/an exercise” then it’s really a waste of my time and frankly anyone else’s. No offense. There are a certain number of minutes a day I (or anyone else) can devote to reading, reviewing, and offering advice on a game design. Personally, I would want to use those minutes to help someone who is serious about designing a game that he will use to enhance his fun and the fun of those he games with. I want the time I put in to helping someone to matter to more than just one other person.

Second, hey Traditional Games can be fun, but they’re well…Traditional. I’ve seen them before. What really sparks my interest is something new and different. Okay, you want to make a Fantasy RPG. How’s it going to be different from most of what I’ve seen before? Got a vampyre game? Sweet! What’s new? If you want to design a Traditional Game to get some experience in game design as David Chunn said, that’s fine. You want to really get my (and no doubt others’) interest sparked? Do something that’s out of the ordinary with your game. And I’m not saying you have to abandon every aspect of a Traditional RPG. Far from it. Even doing one thing in a wild and new way is righteous. I just want to encourage folks to expand their ideas beyond what’s been termed “regular” in the broader RPG community.

Three, if you’re planning on sinking thousands of dollars into a game that makes the same offering as say DnD, Vampire, or Rifts then I’m probably not going to help you. In fact I’ll hope that you get discouraged and scrap the design. Talking about three tiered marketing plans, building a network of games stores and distributors, and ignoring the internet/pdf market are big red flags for me. If you are an independent designer, then sinking gobs of money into trying to get your game “out there” into the public is a very risky endeavor- one that I’d advise avoiding in the early part of your production and publication. The last three questions of the Power 19 will tell me a lot about your plans for the future of your game. Consider them carefully.

Last, I hate helping people who just flame out two months later. No doubt in my mind they had a gem of an idea, but gave up anyway. That sucks. I hate it for them because I know if they could have just finished it, they could have added a verse to the chorus of games indie designers are producing. Heck, I probably would have bought a copy. So please, if you start a game, work to finish it. I’m always available to help.

Speaking of being available, let me establish this right now. If you would like some feedback from me on your design, feel free to post a reply to any article on this blog. I don’t care if it’s off topic or not. The main mission of Socratic Design is to help newer designers get started and get finished. So I’ll drop whatever I’m doing to lend a hand. Now I’d *prefer* to talk about your game on your blog (if you have one) or on a forum like the Forge or RPGnet. So including a link to such a place would be helpful. But if none of that is a possibility, this is an open space for feedback and response. Consider the welcome mat dusted off and the door wide open :-)

In closing, I hope that nothing I’ve said here sounds harsh. But if it does, think about it in this way. I’m truly after people who want to design and publish an RPG. I’m serious about it, and I want them to be serious too. We’re all in this fight to publish together, and I want to be the most effective resource I can for you. Meeting those four requirements above will help me be that.



Wednesday, February 22, 2006

What is a 'Fantasy Heartbreaker' ?


This is the third in a series of shorter articles that will hopefully bring newer designers up to speed on the kinds of expectations I have for this blog and those who help in the Design forum on the Forge have for new games.

As if Traditional Games wasn’t a controversial enough topic, I thought I’d talk about Heartbreaker games next. ;-D In case you haven’t read it yet, please check out the Universal Disclaimer explained here in This Article.

Talking about Heartbreakers can be a very touchy subject, but I feel it is very appropriate to bring it up here at Socratic Design. I mentioned them slightly back here when I talked about how people misuse the term in a mean-spirited way. I’ll cover that slightly again here, but it’s probably good background reading for this article. For additional reading, I highly recommend reading Ron Edward’s articles Fantasy Heartbreakers and More Fantasy Heartbreakers. I’ll give him the credit of coining the terms originally, but it was never his intent that the term would become a hammer to insult and hurt fledgling designers.

The first part of my article, I’m going to split into two parts. First, what is a Heartbreaker not?
- It’s not an illegitimate design
- It’s not a game unworthy of publication
- It’s not a sign of stupidity
- It’s not a sign of uncreative designing

A natural follow-up question would then be, “Well, what are Fantasy Heartbreakers?”
- They try to fix another game
- They are sometimes a gold mine for game ideas
- They are one Entry Point to game design
- They often try to capture a “feeling” of some kind
- They tend to follow the pattern of a Traditional Game
- They are often really fun to play
- They are rarely long lived

It is that last point I’d like to talk about in more detail. By its very nature, a Heartbreaker is like another game (IE, that’s a part of its definition). Some have taken that to be an insult, but it’s not really. That’s just an observation of what a Heartbreaker is. As a result of being like another game already in print, the Heartbreaker is in competition with the game it emulates for attention (not talking about sales here). Heartbreaker or not, a fantasy RPG will immediately be compared to DnD, Runequest, Palladium, or Rolemaster. A horror game will be measured against Call of Cthullu or Vampire. Sometimes those comparisons will lead to the conclusion that the game is not like those. Such is the case with games like The Burning Wheel, The Riddle of Steel, and Sorcerer. Sometimes those comparisons lead one to see redundancy.

Redundancy is one of the most potent enemies of game design. Reasons are many. First, gamers are sometimes lazy. The effort it takes from them to learn a new system that invokes a lot of the same experiences and sensations of play isn’t worth it to them. They’ll just stick with whatever they’re playing right now. Second, some gamers are very territorial. They see any game that is similar to their pet game as a threat. Any challenge to their view of the way games ought to be they take as a personal attack. See just about any Palladium thread on RPGnet. Third, creativity and originality are qualities of any kind of writing that are held in high regard. Something that’s new and unique tends to be something that draws interest. “Newness” appeals to a certain type of gamer who finds pleasure in trying something completely different from all his other play experiences.

Unfortunately, a Heartbreaker game appeals to none of these groups. Those stuck in a rut or protecting their rut won’t be willing to try something new. Those who only try something new won’t see enough reason to go for a Heartbreaker. Therefore, before a Heartbreaker even gets released, there is already a hostile environment waiting to receive it, bash it, and reject it. Before long, a designer will get discouraged and the updates to his website will falter and soon the game will pass into the annals of John H. Kim’s RPG history file.

But emulation of another game is only one aspect of a Heartbreaker and by itself, really doesn’t a Heartbreaker make. There is a second, more vital ingredient that will tag a game a Heartbreaker. So where does the real Heartbreak come from? It comes not so much in the design, but in the publication.

All too frequently (see the examples in Ron’s essay and in my own life), the Heartbreakers that make it past the design phase into publication are done so at a high cost to the designer(s). They look into printing (traditional or POD), compare prices, and find the best cost per book ratio they can. Unfortunately, that is usually in the hundreds or thousands of copies which is often way beyond their ability to sell. They’ll say, “Wow! Loot at the deal we’ll get if we order 2,000 books!” Those books will end up just sitting in a storage facility somewhere collecting dust as the reality of things sets in.

That reality being an indie publisher would absolutely kill to sell 1,000 copies of a book a year, let alone 2,000. That reality being distributors are impossible to deal with, pay little and pay late. That reality being there just aren’t ravenous RPG fans out there dying for the yet another fantasy/sci-fi/superhero/vampire game.

The real Heartbreak is that these good designers end up sinking a ton of money into a project they dearly love and put a lot of honest work into only to find out they bought into a lie. That lie being game stores want their product, distributors serve their customers not their own bottom line, and everyone can have the same success John Wick did with Orkworld.

It is far better to start with a small print run of like 200 books rather than one ten times that size. Or even better, IMHO, is to start by selling the game on pdf through places like RPGNow and DriveThru RPG. See what the initial reaction there is to the game and then use that money to help fund hard copies and point out areas that need revision.

So, should we avoid designing Heartbreakers? In a way I’d say yeah. I know the temptation is there. I feel it all the time. If it’s your first game and you don’t plan on spending much if any money on it, then hey it’s totally cool. Count me in to give you feedback on your design. But my own sincerest advice is to direct your creative energies in another direction. Go for something more original and new. Then come back later and examine a Heartbreaker type design.

It’s possible that someone reading this believes I’m a cynic. That I believe only certain kinds of games deserve to be published and RPGs that don’t follow my prescription are doomed to failure. Nothing could be further from the truth. I will defend every person’s right to publish whatever game their want. I have walked in the Heartbreaker’s shoes, and I have great empathy for them.

My purpose, in this article, is to warn my fellow designers about the pittraps of making a Heartbreaker. It’s a hard, hard road to walk. And I wouldn’t want anyone to have to live with the sort of guilt I’ve had to deal with.



Wednesday, February 15, 2006

What is the 'Fun Now Manifesto' ?


Bankuei over on his blog posted something very interesting. He calls it “The Fun Now Manifesto.” Have a read:

1. Not everyone likes the same thing
2. Play with people you like
3. Play with rules you like
4. Everyone is a player
5. Talking is good
6. Trust, not fear or power
7. It's a game, not a marriage
8. Fun stuff at least every 10 minutes
9. Fix problems, don't endure them

Now, it refers mostly to play. It gives good guidelines for selecting your fellow players, what you’ll play together, and how you’ll play. So what does it have to do with design? Well, there’s some important stuff designers can take from this.

#1: “Not everyone likes the same thing” this tells us that no matter how hard we try, we won’t please everyone. So don’t try. Target an audience with your game. You’re an indie game, not a mega-corp like WotC or Wizkidz. Realize that there will be people who don’t like your game, and that’s okay. Design it for the people who will like your game.

#3: “Play with rules you like” I could just as easily say, “Design with rules you like.” Don’t add in junk just because you think other people will not buy your game if you don’t have it. Design a game you’d like to play with rules you’d like to play with. Chances are very good that others have tatstes very similar to yours. Those are the people you’re after. Adding equipment lists, falling damage tables, setting ficiton, or whatever else to your game to make it “more marketable” will end up making it less so.

#4: “Everyone is a player” this includes a GM. For designers, it means if you’re going to have a GM, make the game fun for him too. Give him explicit instructions and then the tools to help him carry out those instructions. Very few games incorperate explicit GM rewards. Why is that? Come up with ways for the GM to earn extra currency/influence/whatever in your game. Don’t leave him out of your design.

#6: “Trust, not fear or power” Don’t fear spreading power out among all the participants. And don’t fear letting all the players have a say in each other’s characters. Also, don’t include horrific punishments in your game for charactes and/or players who “don’t play the way you want them to.” If they’re looking for a good time, they’ll stay pretty close to the rules you’ve written. If they’re looking to ruin everyone’s fun, there’s not a thing you, as the designer, can do about it anyway. Trust the playes to play your game.

#8: “Fun stuff at least every 10 minutes” Every ten minutes, especially if a group is very sociable, may be a high goal, but never-the-less, your game should provide avenues for action, engagement, and resolution often and in a powerful way. Rules for travel time, equations for fuel tank capacity, or encumberance tables often bog down play. If during playtesting they get in the way of getting to what the game is really about, then drop them. No one’s gonna miss them.

#9: “Fix problems, don't endure them” playtest, playtest, playtest! And then revise. Don’t leave unsolved issues in your game just because you saw them in another game. Don’t ignore a problem that you think players won’t run into very often. And lastly, don’t give up. Your game is good. It has potential. Don’t settle for a half-assed project. A designer can’t be afraid to change things that need changing no matter how long they’ve been in the design or how dear that broken little mechanic is to their heart. If it causes problems, it should probably go.



PS: I really want to thank you, Chris, for coming up with this, and I hope you don't mind me expaning on it here.

Friday, February 10, 2006

What is a Traditional Game?

This is the second in a series of shorter articles that will hopefully bring newer designers up to speed on the kinds of expectations I have for this blog and those who help in the Design forum on the Forge have for new games.

For the purposes of this website (reread that) this is how I’ll define a “Traditional Game.”

First, a Traditional Game has a GM. The GM is imbued with the power to control everything but the PCs. He is also the one who will come up with the overall campaign (aka plot) for the game and the one who is the final arbiter of all disagreements. Players play one and only one character and maintain an Actor Stance as much as possible. Actor Stance is basically playing “in character” where the player cannot affect anything in the Setting except what his own character could normally affect. All of the character’s actions are done in accordance with character knowledge and ability. Player knowledge and player motivation are put aside and considered “out of the game.” Traditional Games employ a Task Resolution system where difficulties and opposition are set by GM fiat with minimal guidance from the game’s text.

They may or may not have such things as levels, classes, races, equipment lists, spell lists, combat subsystems, skills, stats, etc. These are not what make a game a Traditional Game. So don’t confuse them with what I wrote in the paragraph above. They are all elements of game design. Their presence or absence has nothing to do with a game’s traditional-ness or its cutting edge-ness.

These traditional games hale back all the way to basic DnD and progress right through World of Darkness today. The thing that traditional games tend to do is empower the GM and suppress the players. They encourage, sometimes implicitly sometimes explicitly, the idea that the GM is the one who creates the story, the characters just add their voice and color. They propagate the ideal that the GM is the guy who gets to finally decide when a campaign is “done” and who gets what rewards and how much (XP allotments is a fine example of a GM-only duty). Additionally, they engrain the idea that if some ability or action the player wants his character to do isn’t covered in the character sheet, the players must just narrate what happens or not even bother to attempt it. For instance, debating, romance, and negotiation are things that are commonly left up to “roleplaying” and rarely supported by mechanics. Lastly, these games give GMs next to nothing when it comes to tools for creating a Setting, addressing player motives, or altering the Situation to fit the individuality of all the characters. It’s supposed to be done “on the fly” or in some grandiose “world builders guide book” sort of way. Neither of which are consistently effective or useful. Sooner or later both methods will break down.

Obviously, not all games are Traditional Games. There are many good games that break this mold. Sorcerer, The Shadows of Yesterday, Dogs in the Vineyard, The Burning Wheel, Polaris, Breaking the Ice, Dust Devils, Prime Time Adventures, Inspectres, Multiverser, My Life with Master, and Universalis are all excellent examples of such games. They are more on the cutting edge of things.

For the purpose of this post, I’m not going to make any value judgment on Traditional Games. Whether they are good or not, whether they are harmful or not to gamers is something for another discussion. The main thing I want to do with this post is establish what they are and invite feedback that will help me construct a more accurate definition.

[EDIT]: Big thanks to Bankuei, John Kim, and Fang for helping me refine my list of traits a 'Traditional Game' tends to have. That list follows here:

-GM imbued with ultimate authority
-GM charged with creating entire plot and setting for the game
-Players play one and only one character
-Players encouraged to stay in 'Actor Stance'
-Task Resolution System
-Difficulties set by GM fiat
-GM receives minimal guidance or tools from text to cary out his duties
-Character Advancement tied to increasing statistical values
-Character Death
-Dice used as the sole randomizer for play
-Assumption of long term play
-Player/Character goals not mechanically supported in plot/setting creation



Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Why Design an RPG?

This is the first in a series of shorter articles that will hopefully bring newer designers up to speed on the kinds of expectations I have for this blog and those who help in the Design forum on the Forge have for new games.

Why design an RPG?

I’ve had this question put to me a couple times about game designers. “Why design an RPG? There’s plenty out there, make do with those.” Is that a valid point? It’s true that there are hundreds of RPGs out there. They’ve been around now for over three decades. Countless supplements, small press runs, and core rule books have hit the stands. Isn’t there one out there that will work for us?

The answer is “Yes, there are plenty of games out there that will work for us.” But we’re not satisfied with a game that will just “work.” No, we’re looking for a game that will maximize our fun. We’re out to find a game that will take what we like, enhance it, and make it better. We’re looking for an RPG that can surpass what’s out there and push our enjoyment to a degree no previously published game can. That’s why we design. We know there’s MORE out there. We know that the current rules systems leave plenty to be desired. To think that any of or all of them will suit everyone’s tastes is an absurd notion to designers. That’s why we design. We want to suck the marrow out of our enjoyment, nut just reheat the leftovers.

Especially in today’s culture where you can go to a Starbucks and see thirty kinds of coffee or to McDonalds and order one of twenty different burgers. Variety is a good thing. Choice is a good thing. Having a game that fits your style better than any other game is a great thing! This is our rallying cry.

The reason we design is because we want to maximize our fun with RPGs, and we truly believe that others will be able to maximize their fun with our games. That is the purpose of the design forums on the Forge and RPGnet and the purpose of this and many other blogs.



Monday, February 06, 2006

A Good Example


I've dealt with the Power 19 lately mainly by talking about them. That's all well and good, but just talk is not always the best way to learn. It's like being in a lecture hall and never having a lab practical. I am the type of person who learns well from examples, so I thought I'd provide you guys with one here:


Look how thorough John is in answering each question. Note also that he doesn't spend rhemes of text explaining each nuance. He states his answer and his rationale for each each answer. If you want to see how a good set of answers to the Power 19 might look, read his.



Thursday, February 02, 2006

What if my Game Turns out Crappy?

Should we make crappy games?

Yes! And I say yes because we really don’t have much of a choice. What??? You may ask. Well, I’m going to be blunt with you guys because A) sugar coating won’t do you any good, and B) I care about you enough to tell the truth: Your first game is gonna be crappy. More than likely, your second and third game will be too.

Your first try won’t turn out like you had hoped. Trust me. I learned this from painful, PAINFUL experience. But you know what, I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. Looking back on my first foray into game publishing, I realize how much I learned. It was awesome. We got to talk face to face with the product developer of a huge corporation (well, huge in the gaming industry anyway), we got to learn how to use PageMaker, we built a website, we had our own GenCon booth, we dealt with over-stock, distributors, and all kinds of wacky stuff.

None of the original members who worked on Ember Twilight are happy with it now. And we sunk a ton of money on it. But now that I’m working on Cutthroat, Hierarchy, and Standoff, I realize just how much those experiences meant to me and how much they will help me get these games out the door. So why am I telling you this? Because I want to encourage you and warn you at the same time.

Encouragement: Don’t wait for your game to be “perfect.” It won’t be. Get it complete, play test it, then publish it. There is no need to obsess for years over your design. Hit it hard, get it finished, and then get it out there. See what happens, and learn from your experience. There really isn’t any better way to learn how to write and publish an RPG than to do it. You’ll get your nose bloody for sure, but that’s okay. It will make you tougher the next time. Don't lose out on an opportunity to get this experience because you don't think your game is"worthy" to be published. 'Cause it is.

Warning: Don’t sink a ton of money in your first design. Let it grow at its own pace. Selling your game through online companies like RPGNow, Drivethru RPG, or Lulu is a great way to start. Thinking you’re going to succeed with a “multi-tiered marketing and distribution strategy…” is the road to heartache. Start small and let the games you design grow at their own pace.

Go back and notice that I said “games” with an “s” at the end. Once your first design is done, start your second. You’ll be surprised how much easier the process is and how you’ll see where you have already learned and improved.

So let us see your crap! Publish your game with no fear. Then design another.