Thursday, May 31, 2007

Socratic Design Anthology #4


Every summer I take the month of June off to travel, enjoy nature, and recharge my emotional and mental batteries. I won't post here at Socratic Design again until some time in July. I may do some posting over on my design blog. Maybe.

Anyhow, before I sign off for a bit, I want to leave you with the latest SD Anthology. For those of you who are new, here are the first three anthologies:

Socratic Design Anthology #1
Socratic Design Anthology #2
Socratic Design Anthology #3

I do these every so often just to keep a running history of my work and make it esier for newer readers to catch up. I think it's important to see how a person's views change over time and to understand the context for a person's entire body of work. I hope you enjoy them. :)

The following articles are part of the Socratic Design Anthology #4:

What is Character?
What is Color?
What Else Besides Dice?
What is a 'Sacred Cow' ?
Why Do People Do RPGs?
Why Should I post my Power 19?
Are There any Design Outlines?
How Can My Game Teach Mechanics?
What is it Like to Publish a RPG?
What is a Fulfillment Service?
What is the Future of RPGs?

As always, please report any links that don't work. See you guys in July!



Tuesday, May 29, 2007

What is 'Character' ?


I'm finishing up my essays here on the five aspects of Exploration. This one is about "Character." The provisional glossary defines it as "A fictional person or entity which may perform actions in the imaginary situation."

So let's break that down a bit. First, let's begin with "fictional." The Character is the insubstantial person (or entity) in the game. He is the imagined personality, the dream given realization but not form. This means that the Character is a wholly separate object from the Player. Some games like to entwine these two. They have phrases like, "your character knows only what you (the player) knows." Other games demand that they be kept separate, hence the infamous division between "player knowledge" and "character knowledge."

From a design perspective, it is important to note that the fictitious Character and the real Player are separate beings. What the character does and what the player does can, and often will, be two different things. Phrases like, "the players go on an adventure" in a game book bug me a bit. The players don't go anywhere. They portray characters that go on an adventure, and vicariously through them experience that adventure. It is not the same thing.

Next in the definition we have "person or entity." This definition here is broad because a character doesn't have to be a person. In the RPG Cats the characters are cats! Also, I could imagine an RPG where the characters are aspects of a person's psychology- say the Id, Ego, and Superego for instance. The key is that the character is the player's interface with the exploration going on during play. He, she, or it is a tool that the player uses explore whatever interests him during play.

Which brings us to the last part of the definition, "which may perform actions in the imaginary situation." Characters, of whatever type, perform actions. They are dynamic. They must do something. A character that is inert is not a character at all, he is no more interesting than a piece of furniture for all intents and purposes. When designing, make sure that the characters, especially the player-characters, can do things in the imagined world that are fun, interesting, and provoking. Give the players tools to portray their characters and put them in situations that challenge the players to explore your game's potential. That is what a Character really does- facilitates the exploration of your wonderful creation. Keep that in mind at all times and your game will improve.

I may revisit this aspect of Exploration again in the future. There is much to talk about here. Immersion, flags, bangs, and so on are keys to creating dynamic and fun characters. However, this will serve as a brief definition of Character and provide a future context for my essays. :)



Saturday, May 26, 2007

Last Chance!


If you have independantly published your own RPG, then the Forge Booth for GenCon is still accepting buy-ins until June 1st. If you've never done the Forge Booth before, it'll just cost ya $100 plus the cost of a badge. This is a great deal. If you've never been to GenCon before, it is a convention in Indianapolis Indiana that brings in thousands and thousands of gamers. If you have a new game you want to show off, this is the place. You can get more information about the Forge Booth -Here-



Wednesday, May 23, 2007

What is Color?


Color is identified by the Forge as one of the five main areas of Exploration. It is defined in the Provisional Glossary as, “Imagined details about any or all of System, Character, Setting, or Situation, added in such a way that does not change aspects of action or resolution in the imagined scene. One of the Components of Exploration.”

Okay….so what does that mean? Think of Color as synonymous with Detail. Any description or item that adds detail to the game’s SYSTEM, Characters, Setting, or Situation, is considered to be Color. How about some examples?

-SYSTEM with no Color:
The character kills the other character.

-SYSTEM with Color:
The Warrior uses his mighty great sword to lop off the head of King Moligant on the roll of a critical 20.

-Setting with no Color:
A town.

-Setting with Color:
1602 in the year of our Lord., near the village of Malbork, nestled among the Frozen Mountains outside the Enchanted Forest.

-Character with no Color:
A man.

-Character with Color:
Drakh the level 20 Barbarian from the southern wastes of Hallowfell.

-Situation with no Color
A village in crisis

-Situation with Color
The small hamlet of Esteria is suffering from a malignant plague brought on by undead agents under the command of a local demagogue who is advocating rebellion against the town council.

When I think about Color, I divide it into two categories: Essential and Casual. Essential Color is something that the players need to know in order to correctly use and understand the item being described. For instance, knowing that a cleric is a dwarf in DnD is Essential Color. That designation brings with it a lot of consequences. You certainly would expect different things from the character if he were an elven cleric, or a Halfling cleric, or a drow cleric. Essential Color is used as a cue to the players as to how they should react to or use the item in question.

Casual Color, on the other hand, is pure description for aesthetic purposes. For instance, saying that the same cleric is bald is unlikely to have any consequential effect on play. It could just as easily be ignored and play would continue on just fine. However, Casual Color is important because it adds detail to play and can help players immerse themselves in the world. Casual Color piques interest and gives players a chance to express their creativity while they play.

However, both kinds of Color can run amok if over used. When it comes to Essential Color, imagine if you put all the weapon tables for DnD together or compiled all the damage tables for Rolemaster that have ever been printed. It would be overwhelming! And what good would it do? Many of the weapons/tables are redundant and would just get in the way of players trying to have fun by increasing the handling time greatly. Likewise, Casual color (whether in a textual Setting description or description that comes from the mouth of a GM) can be overdone to the point where it wastes time rather than increases interest.

When designing your game, balancing the amount of Color you include won’t be all that tricky. Read what you have written for yourself. Do you get tired of reading about the same thing for three pages? If you do, chances are someone else will also. Similarly, when you read over your writing, is there something that jumps out at you that makes you wish you had written more about it? If so, then write more about it! However, the best test for the right mixture of Color is to have someone other than yourself read it. Get some outside feedback, and see what they find interesting, boring, or inconsequential. Use that as your guidepost.



Tuesday, May 22, 2007

What is a 'Sacred Cow' ?


Every now and then on game design boards or blogs you hear people talk about "shooting a sacred cow." While I applaud this, the phrase is rarely ever explained nor are examples amply given. This post tries to do both of those things. Basically, a "Sacred Cow" in RPGs is a design mechanic or motif that seems inextricably part of RPG design. In other words, if you don't have this "thing", whatever it is, your game is not an RPG. Well this is, of course, absurd. In every field of art, science, and culture the envelope has been pushed and definitions of what a thing is or isn't has been stretched. RPGs are no different. In the last 7 to 10 years, many Sacred Cows have been shot dead and the definition of what a role-playing game is has been stretched a great deal.

But what are a few examples “Sacred Cows?” Here's a few off the top of my head:

Sacred Cow #1: Every game needs a GM
---Shooters: Universalis, Capes, Cutthroat
Sacred Cow #2: RPGs shouldn't deal mechanically with the idea of romance
---Shooters: Breaking the Ice, It was a Mutual Decision, Blue Rose
Sacred Cow #3: You must use dice for resolution
---Shooters: Amber Diceless, Castle Faulkenstein, Dust Devils
Sacred Cow #4: Each player should have only one character
---Shooters: Ars Magica
Sacred Cow #5: Characters who lose in combat should die
---Shooters: Dogs in the Vinyard, Toon, Hierarchy
Sacred Cow #6: All characters should be "people"
---Shooters: Cats, The Secret Lives of Gingerbreadmen, Puppetland

There are plenty of others. And sometimes, a design might require one or more Sacred Cows. There's nothing wrong with taking advantage of design patterns that have worked in the past. They've worked for a reason! However, there is also nothing wrong with taking a step out of what has been done and looking for something that hasn't. Don't be afraid to shoot some of those Sacred Cows. They could be the very thing holding back your design.



Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Why Do People Do RPGs?


A while back I posted a series of 5 questions on Game Craft in the spirit of Socratic Design. I wanted to share the answers here on this blog partly as research. The responses are non-scientific, but are never-the-less useful. Designers should know how other people passionate about RPGs feel and what/why they play. Perhaps some of the answers posted to the questions on Game Craft will inspire you to write something.

Why Do You Design?
Why Do You Play?
What Do You Play?
What Do You Play With?
What Are You?

Like I said, the answers are just data if you're doing some non-scientific research for a project. But I feel we can all learn from each other as we share our views, experiences, and preferences. If you like, feel free to add to these answers by replying here on Socratic Design. You will only add to the tapestry those respondants started.



Sunday, May 06, 2007

Why Should I Post My Power 19?


For a while it was a really hip thing to post your Power 19 at the Forge or Story Games. Over time, it slightly fell out of favor. Andy discourages people from posting them at SG and the new guys at the Forge are now far removed from the post I made back in 2005. But recently Ralph Maza suggested that we start posting our Power 19’s again, and I couldn’t agree more. There are several good reasons for doing this, but I’ll just give your three.

Reason #1: New designers can learn from the answers of veteran designers. If you are a published game designer and are working on a new game, post your Power 19 on the Forge or on GameCraft. There are so many designers out there who can benefit just from reading the responses you created when meeting the challenges outlined in the Power 19. The questions on character creation, rewards, resolution, and target audience are all key questions IMO that stump newbie designers. Seeing veterans post their solutions to those problems is an education in and of itself. A bank of Power 19’s on the Forge or GameCraft would become like a library for newer designers to go, check out, and learn from.

Reason #2: You might (GASP!) get some useful feedback on something you had never thought of before. I have a feeling that some designers hesitate posting a Power 19 publicly because they are afraid of getting bad or useless advice that will either eat up too much of their time responding to or send them down a path that ruins the game. Phooey! Feedback, even misguided or lackadaisical can be useful to a designer as it help you reinforce and defend your ideas. At worst, the feedback will help you sharpen your edge. And who knows, someone might actually offer something insightful that helps your game way more than a playtesting session would have.

Reason #3: Speaking of playtesting, it is way easier to get outside playtesting if you have talked about your game in public. The Power 19 is an excellent hyping tool for a game. It lets the readers know all about your game, the key components, and what you plan to do with it in the future. If you are looking to get some people invested in your playtesting or ashcan release of your game, then publicly posting a Power 19 on it is a great way to get that ball rolling. Just try it. See what kind of response you get.

Posting your Power 19 is a win-win for everyone. The Forge and GameCraft get more traffic. You get useful feedback and promote interest in your design. Future designers get a resource they would, otherwise, have no contact with. I encourage you, if you’ve gotten to the point in your game where you can answer most of the questions in the Power 19, go for it!



Monday, April 30, 2007

How Can My Game Better Teach Mechanics?


One of the largest barriers, if not the largest barrier, to playing an RPG is learning the mechanics. Human beings are so unpredictable in the way they use words, understand words, and act upon words. For instance, back in the 90's I played ADnD with three different groups. Each group interpreted the text differently. Everything from the number of spells wizards got per level to how to roll initiative was slightly different- not because of house rules, but because people just read the official rules differently. IMO, this sort of thing is not all that desirable. So how can we avoid it?

First, examples play a key role in helping people understand new content. Giving players a model to follow offers them a template for their own experiences with your game. There are three types of examples I'd like to talk about for a moment: Generic, Faux-play, and Actual Play.

Generic examples are quick bites of information just to make an abstract idea concrete. For instance, if you were to give an example for Stats, you might say "John's character has a Strength of 5, an Agility of 4, a Logic of 10, and a Charisma of 8." That's a Generic example. Usually, you are not recounting anything that actually happened while someone was playing the game. It doesn't matter what the numbers were or who the players were, and the example will have no further bearing on the text beyond the section where it is included.

Faux-play examples are very common in RPGs. They often appear at the beginning (like my own Ember Twilight), during the resolution chapter, or at the ending of a book. They are usually written as a script where players are sitting around a table talking through their play. Sometimes, they include an over use of words like "Awesome" or have lots of exclamation points. Such an example might go something like this:

GM (rolls and 18): Okay, the orc swings and hits you with his club. 5 Damage. Your turn, Jake.

Jake: Ouch that hurts. I'm going to swing back. (rolls a 17). I hit!

GM: Nice hit, Jake! He takes 8 damage and dies.

Jake: Awesome!

I call this a Faux-play because it's totally manufactured. This is hardly how people play an RPG, but it is how play is commonly portrayed in an RPG text. However, these kinds of examples are still useful. They can demonstrate the order of mechanics and how various parts of the system work in concert with each other.

An Actual Play example is when a writer uses an Actual Play report, either one posted on the Internet or one he wrote for his own reflection, and includes that in the text. This isn't done too often. However, an Actual Play example provides the reader with an authentic model for play. By reading an Actual Play report within the text of a game, the reader will gain much more insight as to how the game truly works with real people in the real world. This can be invaluable especially if the game has a lot of complex mechanics.

There is room for all three kinds of examples in an RPG. A writer should be aware of each and use them appropriately.

A second way an RPG can teach its mechanics is to be aware of how learning takes place. Over on Story Games, Doyce Testerman wrote a series of posts talking about adult learning styles. Rather than replicate his work, I'll link them here for you:

[Teaching Your Game] Rules for Teaching Adults
[Teaching Your Game] Teaching Specific Tasks
[Teaching Your Game] Attention Span and Effective Use of Time
[Teaching Your Game] Readability – The Fog Index
[Teaching Your Game] Using Adult Learning Techniques to Deliver Game Content

Finally, a game can teach its mechanics through a tutorial. Some games turn themselves into graphic novels that visually and literarily teach the mechanics to the readers. Sometimes a game will offer a step by step procedure for the players to follow to create and use their characters for the first time. This is most common on CRPGs or MMORPGs, but tabletop games can do the same. It becomes a matter of writer's choice.

It is very important to be aware that a game must do its best to teach the mechanics it contains to the reader. Failure to provide clear examples or failure to understand how people read and learn will cause real problems when people sit down to play your game. If you would like to test the "learnability" of your game, give it to someone who's never seen it before and ask them to make a character and tell you how they will use that character in play. It might just surprise you.



Wednesday, April 25, 2007

What Else Besides Dice?


I’m going to talk just a little bit about resolution systems today- specifically using things other than dice. Nothing too deep. I just got back from Forge Midwest and grad school is still swamping me with work. But anyway, I haven’t made a real post in a while, and I thought I it’s about time I did.

First, let me say that not using dice in your resolution system does not automatically make your game cool or awesome. Nor does it instantly garner you some kind of “indie cred” with other designers if that’s the sort of thing you’re after. Choosing not to use dice will not make your game any better if all the other mechanics don’t hold up on their own. Do not interpret this as a call for more diceless games or an article extolling the virtues of non-traditional resolution systems. This is simply an informational post about a certain portion of resolution mechanics I’ve either used, toyed with, or played with in some way. Also, do not mistake this as an exhaustive list of how to use non-dice resolutions mechanics. These are just the ones I’ve considered at some point. Maybe you’ll find them useful too :)

Cards: A deck of cards can be a useful set of randomizers to use instead of dice. Without the jokers, you have 52 possibilities. That’s quite a few, and may give you the range of possibilities you want for your game if a d20 is too few and a d100 is too much. You can also organize cards into various groups. You have 4 suits, 2 colors, 12 face cards (not counting aces, 16 if you do), evens and odds. Depending on how often you want a certain result to come up, you can look at card groupings to get percentages and probabilities. If you decide to include jokers, you have the opportunity to throw in really rare or powerful effects when the jokers do get played that won’t come up so often that they break the game, but often enough that they get noticed. Also, don’t overlook the fact that there are already many games out there that use a standard 52 deck of cards. Games like poker, blackjack, and euchre can all be employed by an RPG designer to act as the resolution system itself. They become a game within a game.

Coins: Coin flipping is a game almost everyone has played as a child. It usually involves very low stakes gambling, and provides binary results (heads or tales). However, coins can be expanded in an RPG to where players are flipping multiple coins and checking the results either against another player’s flip, a table of some kind, or a difficulty rating. Coins are fairly accessible, but can be a pain to keep up with if the numbers coins getting flipped gets too high. But the fact that they are quick, easy to find, and can serve double as tokens or currency markers, makes coins a viable choice for RPG resolution.

Dominos: Dominos are seldom used by RPG designers, but they are just as legitimate as anything else. There are several different sets you can get on the market. Some sets go from double zero (a blank domino) to double 6 (six dots on both sides). There are others that go from double zero all the way to double 18! And, of course, there’s everything in between. Dominos can be used in several ways for resolution, and I’m sure there’s some that I won’t list here. First, you can use random draws w/ a comparison of the totals on the dominos to see who wins. A domino that is 6/8 would beet a domino that is 1/2. You could actually build a train of dominos on the table, and if a player want’s his character to do something, but can’t play a tile, then he is unable to act. The dominos would serve as gate keepers in this sense. Players could also possible build their own trains, then spend the dominos as currency throughout the game to gain the effects they want. And there’s plenty more creative uses for dominos in an RPG. The key to this, however, is to take advantage of the properties of the domino. That is, they are physical object, they have two values, probably have varying colors, and rules for a game that uses them already exists.

Tokens: Tokens can be anything from glass beads to plastic disks to rose petals. Tokens keep track of some resource a player has access to or can serve as a countdown to some endgame scenario. They are physical objects and thus, everyone at the table is probably going to know who has how many tokens everyone has available to them. In resolution, tokens can be used in bidding wars, comparisons, gambling, and spending. In a bidding war, players would go back and forth bidding tokens until one person gives up or they both run out. Comparisons between token pools would put an emphasis only on accumulating large numbers of tokens in order to defeat enemies. The more tokens you have, the stronger the foe you can overcome. Gambling is like a bidding war, but instead the winner would receive some amount of tokens back. The loser would lose all of his. Gambling puts an emphasis on resource management and risk-taking. Finally, spending tokens is the simplest way to use them. A player would simply need to spend X number of tokens to generate Y effect. There is no real randomness in that system unless the X is somehow variable and constantly changing.

Point Pools: Point pools are a lot like tokens, however they are easier to keep secret. Typically, there is a spot on a character sheet to track them. They can be used in much the same way tokens can, but don’t require the players to have physical objects at the table to manipulate during the resolution phase of the game. In fact, this is they system I’m using with one of my games that I’ll link over on my design blog once I get the chance. One nice thing about point pools vs. tokens is that trading points between different pools is quite easy. Shift points from your “Power Pool” to your “Relationship Pool” involves just an eraser and a couple pencil marks. This can be done quickly and easily. Counting out tokens, sorting different colors of beads or chips from each other, and stacking them all in a neat pile can be tedious and time consuming.

Talk: Finally, the last non-dice resolution mechanic I’m going to cover is talking. Of all the gimmicky things I mentioned, talking is probably the most basic. In fact, you probably do this all the time in your group. The GM might say, “Okay, you walk into the bar…” and another player replies, “No wait, I want to get something out of the trunk of my car first…” That right there is an example of talk resolving a conflict. An entire game can work like that, however, there has to be a significant “buy-in” by all the players. You, as the designer, are counting on them not to just run wild and describe themselves conquering the world in a single instance of resolution. You’re also not giving the players much to work with. IMO, people generally do feel more comfortable with some “objective” item telling them what happens. Dice, cards, and points are all popular for a reason. Talk can be tricky to incorporate into the actual mechanics of a game. Use it with caution.

Like I said earlier, nothing profound here. Just a simple catalog of a few non-traditional mechanics. I am neither encouraging nor discouraging their use, but I definitely wanted to get this up on my blog for future reference. It’s good to be aware of the wide variety of possibilities out there when it comes to resolution systems. Take care all! :)



Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Interview Part 2


The guys over at Cannon Puncture have posted the second part of my interview with them. It's my first podcast interview and I'll have to say it was intimidating at first. But I got to talk about two things I really love: playing and designing games. Oh, and I got to plug my two favorite OOP CCGs, too! That rocks. Anyway, hope you enjoy :)



Monday, April 02, 2007

Game Chef Update


Life has gotten really busy for me lately. Between participating in the Game Chef competition and grad school, I haven't had must time for blogging. So I'll point you towards some other guys who are talking about the competition. Over on Canon Puncture, several designers (including myself) are doing some interviews about their games and the competition in general. Andy Kitkowski gives a really good description about the contest and what he hopes comes from it. Give it a listen if you get a chance :)



Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Want to Win a Contest?


The best way to get better at game design is to practice game design. I firmly believe every nascent designer should give it a go in the public eye so they can get some feedback on their ideas and though processes. So here's your chance. Right now the Iron Game Chef is going on sponsored by Andy Kitkowski (of Story Games and 1KM1KT fame). This is a contest where random "game ingredients" (which are really just game terms used to inspire design) are passed out to the contest participants. Everyone has two weeks to create a design and post it for general feedback. It's a lot of fun and a great learning opportunity.

If you are reading this, then you need to do it. No, don't blow it off. Go to THIS THREAD right now and sign up! I've done it and as a result I've got The Holmes and Watson Committee RPG coming out this year. Other people have done it and produced games like Polaris, The Mountain Witch, and Crime and Punishment. So this is your opportunity to strike gold. Please, please join in and feel free to use the resources I've posted at Socratic Design to help you gain an edge. Trust me, you won't regret the decision to enter.



Monday, March 05, 2007

Are There Any Design Outlines?


Why yes there are! So glad you asked. Actually you didn't, I just needed a way to set up this article. heh heh

Anyway, this blog is suposed to be about practical design theory and useful design tools. I've gotten away from that for a little bit, but I hope to get back to that in earnest. So, in that vein, I'm going to share something personal with you. Ever since I wrote Cutthroat, I've been thinking about what it takes to make a complete game. As in, what components have to be there in order for a game to be considered playtest-able. I noticed that when I wrote Cutthroat, I made sure certain things were present. When I wrote Hierarchy, I noticed a lot of those same things were again purposely added to the game. Mainly these are subsystems like, character creation, resolution, reward systems, the endgame, and so on. That's nothing new.

But what I decided to do was take careful note of the mechanics I unconsciously included and then from those notes, I developed an outline. Then I wrote Standoff! And the outline didn't fit, so I modified it. Then I wrote Holmes and Watson, and the outline needed further redrafting. Since Cutthroat I have written seven games. Each time I refined my outline more and more. This is what I give to you:

Outline for Design #1
Outline for Design #2
Outline for Design #3
Outline for Design #4
Outline for Design #5
Outline for Design #6
Outline for Design #7
Outline for Design #8
Outline for Design #9

As you can see, each one is a refined copy of the one that precedes it. Game design is a process that never ends. I imagine that I'll continure to refine this outline, and I will likely edit this article to include future editions.

Here's the thing you need to keep in mind, though. These aren't the only outlines you can use for designing a game. These are just the ones I've used. Plenty of designers use different ones, or don't use one at all. What they do is help me organize my thoughts and signal me when I've finished enough for a playtestable draft. They help me know when I've met the minimum requirements for a finished design.

Also, even if you do like them, not every outline will be right for you. You might find #3 suits you better than #5. Or you could find that none of them suit you. Or it could be that #7 is the very thing you've been looking for. Take these outlines for what they are: one potential tool out of many. If this kick-starts your design, then awesome! If not, that's cool too. These are just here to help those who need it :)



PS: Please feel free to report any non-functioning links. Appreciate it! :)

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Not Ready for GenCon? Yes you are!


Let's say you've got a game you've been working on for a while now. You have playtested it many times with your buddies and maybe even had an outside playtest or two. The game is fun, but you know it's not ready for full scale publication and sale in stores or at IPR. You would like to have your game ready for GenCon, but you're wise enough to know that if you could just get some more playtesting and feedback, your game would be a thousand times better. Enter Paul Czege.

He has a proposal for you. Paul knows what he's doing with it comes to self-publication. My Life With Master has been a hit since the day he released it. But now he wants to turn his attention to regular Joe's that need just a little more help getting their game ready for the big time. His offer is extremely generous, and guys, if you have a game that can fit his criteria I HIGHLY recomend you take him up on his offer. There's a discussion going on about the details and sign ups at the Forge. Post there if you have questions or concerns. This is something that could benefit a whole lotta designers, and help you "get your foot in the door."



Tuesday, February 27, 2007

RPG Design Contest


If you haven't heard, Story Games is down. On another blog Andy (the guy who runs the site) and another guy (Mark) mentioned that you could write an RPG in the time that SG takes to get back up. What a great idea! So I started a contest on the Forge. The rules are this:

-Get it finished before SG is back up
-Use the basic rules of 24 Hour RPG (except the time limit)
-Encorperate the theme BLACKOUT in some way, shape or form.

Okay, get to work guys! Let's see what you got!



A Rare Chance


One of the biggest influences on me as a young game designer was John Wick. Back in 2000 he wrote a series of game design articles about a game called Orkworld. This was one of the first games that could truly be considered an "Independant RPG." I think Ron Edward's Sorcerer came out just a year ahead of Orkworld. Anyway, John is making a great offer (click here). Until 12pm (noon) on Wednesday, February 28th, you can get eight of his games on PDF (normally $55) for only $25. That's a great deal, IMO. You do have to have a PayPal account, but if you contact him personally, you might be able to make some other kind of arangement. I don't know. But if you are new to RPG design, I highly recomend this. If you like John Wick games, I highly recomend this. Heck, if you just like RPGs I highly recomend this :)



Tuesday, February 20, 2007

What is the Future of RPGs?


I promise to get to more practical design focused articles very soon, but this is a question that comes up a lot. I thought it could be a useful discussion to have from a design perspective rather than an industry perspective as it is usually done. Sometimes as engineers (and game designers can look at themselves as a “kind” of engineer) it is good to examine where one’s products may need to evolve without regarding current restraints or lack of technology. It is a thinking exercise that may (or may not) pay huge dividends in the future. Imagine if you could create a tabletop RPG without any constraints on mechanics, technology, or delivery formats. That’s what I plan to do here. So, if I gaze into my crystal d20 I may see RPGs in the future that incorporate these following design elements:

=The MySpace/YouTube Culture: This isn’t about MySpace or YouTube per se. There has been a trend in the trendy “new thing of the week” department over the last 5 years or so. Look at the names of the following products or services: MySpace, YouTube, iPod, iPhone, Windows ME. Notice a common theme? Bingo! And on the first try, too. Each of these products glorifies “self.” Our culture, especially American culture, is becoming more and more radically individualist. The newest things are all about “me me me!” Social commentary on this phenomenon is meant for another place, but as RPG designers we should take note of this grown self-obsession in our world.

In the future, I believe that successful RPGs will need to include facets of the players’ real lives into the actual mechanics of the game. I have to stop and give Ron Edwards and his game Zero at the Bone some credit for first suggesting this. But it is something I am increasingly coming to believe. Players in the future will want to display themselves in front of their fellow players and be recognized socially for their own merits, flaws, and experiences. Games that incorporate a player’s real life interests, flaws, fears, aspirations, relationships, indulgences and so on will strike a cord with the MySpace Generation.

Want to appeal to new players? Give them ownership of the mechanics of the game. Make the game about them, and they will buy it.

=A Return to the Box (and Board): Role-playing games are games, right? (I do not wish to debate what “game” means, take it to another board) However, most RPGs are sold in the textbook, user manual or comic book style. In the future, I can see RPGs returning to the old fashioned “boxed game” model. RPGs will need to package themselves more like board games, which are hugely successful and getting more diverse all the time, to attract new customers.

In the last two decades, boxed RPGs have fallen out of favor for a number of reasons. Expense and the fact that book sellers find it easier to stock books rather than boxes are two of the big ones. In the future, the boxing of an RPG with helpful maps, graphic organizers, character sheets, tips sheets, miniatures, a physical game space (like a board or grid), quick start manuals, and a letter from the designer will be much cheaper and just as available as POD printing is today. Or at least for RPGs to successfully go back to the Box Model, it will have to get cheaper and more readily available. I can picture a company like Lulu pioneering this return.

Anyway, with a return to the Box, RPGs can position themselves more in competition with board games- which is a much wider audience. Imagine walking down the game aisle at Wal-mart or Toy-R-Us and seeing next to stacks of Monopoly and Scrabble The Shadow of Yesterday, Buring Empires, My Life With Master, and The Mountain Witch all in shiny boxes with maps, tips sheets, actual play examples, and letters from Luke, Clinton, and Tim. Pretty cool, huh?

= Next Gen Customization: GURPS and D20 are examples of games that are customizable. However, they are HUMONGOUS! Sifting through the rhemes of material these two systems provide can take days if not weeks. Then, you have to get everyone to agree what books are in and what books are out. It’s cumbersome and time consuming. But this isn’t meant to be a complain session about GURPS or d20. Let’s think about customization in the future.

First, the core system would have to be both free and available for purchase. A good looking PDF could be put up for free on the Internet and at the same time the company could sell a low cost and adequate print version for those who prefer a manual to hold in their hands. The system would be a bare minimum. It might even be as simple as just the Resolution system of the game with a few examples. Everything else would be up to the players- literally. The designer(s) would add components to the game based on orders from the players. Each person who paid a certain fee would have whatever he wanted for the game designed, printed, and mailed directly to him (or if he preferred PDF, sent through email). If he wanted a character creation system that was just for elves, he’d pay the $20 fee and the designer would write a character creation book about elves for him. If he wanted rules for using laser blasters, he’d pay the $20 fee and get a book on lasers.

This is very similar to what Greg Stolze does on his site with the Ransom model. However, this is totally customer driven. The designer would lean on a few design motifs to keep things consistent, but each book would be unique and personalized for the customer and his needs. Come to think of this, I believe Jonathan Walton mentioned doing something sort of along these lines around GenCon last year. But this is on a much gander and focused scale. Every customer would get his own version of the game based on his vision and play preferences.

=Serial RPGs (aka the Metaplot Reborn): Eeeeeeeeew, metaplots! Get over it. The “metaplot” isn’t such a bad idea in and of itself. The problem lies in customers getting overwhelmed by dozens and dozens of splat books that move it along before they are ready. A Serial RPG would be a game that starts characters in a small location with a gripping story. The book would be small itself. Containing only the first “chapter” of the plot. At the fastest, a new book would be released every 3-4 months. More likely, a new book each every 6-12 months would open up a larger and larger section of the plot/game-world/story-arc.

They main thing with this kind of Serial RPG that a designer would have to keep in mind would be that he could not tell the players how to play their characters or exactly how they should participate in the evolving plot. That would a difficult balance to maintain and at present I have no idea how it could be done. That’s for a future designer to discover and implement ;)

Anyone who does implement a Serial RPG in this manner would also need to release Anthologies every now and then. These Anthologies would include all the books previously released for the story-arc. This way new players could be brought into the game line. A Serial style of RPG design has the advantage of creating a loyal and constant audience and therefore a high likelihood of repeat buyers.

=Hybrid RPGs: The main competition, as far as adventure games go, for RPGs are video games. This includes everything from computer games to console games to MMORPGs. Once upon a time video games were just part of a geek culture when only a few people had Ataris or Nintendos. Now electronic gaming (thanks to the Internet, Microsoft, Wii, and Madden Football) has gone mainstream. Tabletop role-playing games in the future will need to capitalize on the prevalence of electronics in our society.

Role-playing games will eventually incorporate MP3’s or Podcasts into their design. A company’s blog will add game content and features to the core rules of the games themselves. Videos on places like MySpace or YouTube or Flickr will be readily accessible to gaming groups and offer examples of play or new content. Interactive Maps, artwork, puzzles, dice rollers, riddles, and even sound bites posted on the Internet would be the type of features a game designer will have at his fingertips to weave right into the mechanics of his game. These things could be downloaded into an iPod, PDA, or Laptop for use at the gaming table. These features would either be pay-for-play items with a free core rule book or a set of free features that enhance a core rule book that is available for purchase.

In the future, technology will be seamless integrated into a game’s mechanics.

=The eBook: I’m not sure how this sort of thing will impact RPGs (here is an example made by Sony). It could be a lot, it could be zilch. The basic idea of this thing is that you can download electronic books on to it and read them like a regular book. This would take PDF publishing to the next level. In the future, it may even be possible to add three dimensional objects to such a book or incorporate movies or animations of some kind that demonstrate how to play the game. Being able to quickly and tangibly flip from page to page to reference charts, tables, and rules could be a real advantage for RPGs. I could even see voice activated eBooks that will respond to commands like, “Show me a picture of a vampire…” or “Turn to page 83…” Games that figure out how to maximize the potential of a product like this will have a leg up in finding a new audience.

Of course, all of this is cloud talk. It may happen; it may not. But the object of this article is to provoke thought in the area of RPG design. We need to look beyond the current mechanics and delivery formats we use to what might be over the next horizon. Independent RPG designers are especially nimble enough to maximize the potential use of new formats and technology. So this post is mainly meant to say, “Where we are is good. Where we will be is better. Let’s start thinking about how we can change everything.”



Wednesday, February 07, 2007

What is a Fulfillment Service?


I’m really heavy into the publication and sales side of game design right now, so my articles are germane to that. Today, I’m just briefly going to talk about fulfillment services. I am not currently using any of them for my own reasons, but I highly recommend them to any new author. There are several companies that can handle and have experience in handling the distribution and sale of independent RPGs.

IPR (Indie Press Revolution): IPR is run by Brennan Taylor and Simon Rogers. This company has burst on the scene and really changed things for independent RPG publishers. I have heard nothing but positive reports about them, and they even have their OWN PODCAST where they talk about their company with Paul Tevis. Personally, I believe IPR is one of the most significant developments for independent publishers to come along in a long time. They do have a certain standard RPGs have to meet in order to be carried there, but for the most part all independent RPG publishers are welcome.

Key20: Key20 has been around longer than IPR and has some long time relationships with small press publishers like Ron Edwards and Luke Crane. They usually run a booth at conventions like GenCon and have established relationships with distributors and game stores alike. They do a good job of catering to the small publisher and do a very good job of promoting the products of the companies they represent.

Lulu: Lulu is both a POD (print on demand) printer and a fulfillment service. You can take care of both needs at once through this company. They have their own storefront where both PDFs and books can be bought and sold. For a newer publisher looking to simplify things, Lulu is not a bad choice. Their printing prices are a little higher than some other POD printers, but if you go with their fulfillment service, it may be well worth it to save on the headaches.

With all three organizations, you need to really research them. Only one may be right for you, or all three may fit your needs. To my knowledge, none of them have any kind of exclusivity requirements, so you can go with as many as you like. Just carefully read over the terms of agreement and be sure you will get what you want out of it.



Thursday, January 25, 2007

What's it like to publish a RPG?


So I finally got DL-Quarterly out the door and under way. Cutthroat is in customers’ hands right now and hopefully is getting played. It’s an awesome feeling, and it’s at this point I reflect on the publishing process as a whole. I thought I’d share those reflections with you.

For the most part, I talk about Design on this blog. But Publishing (in this case I’m talking about full-on book printing) is part of the process too. The first thing you should know about it, is that publishing is hard- real hard. If you are not emotionally and mentally prepared for a horrendously grueling process, then upload your PDF for free to a website and leave it at that. If you aren’t ready for this, it’s best to hold off until you are.

I’m going to break my reflections on Publishing down into two parts: Stuff you have to do before you submit you game to the printer, and stuff you have to do after.

Before: (Art, Layout, Editing)

Artwork can be a major boon to you game, or it can totally kill your game. For designers who are doing things on the cheap, I recommend looking over my Previous Article on artwork. I especially recommend Ed Heil’s Illo Trove. I can’t believe more people aren’t taking advantage of that. But anyway, here are my thoughts on art, layout, and editing:

Thought #1: No art is better than bad art. After getting my copies of Cutthroat, I really started to rethink how I used art in the game. The pictures I used do fit the themes of the sections in which they appear, but in the end I think they detract a little from the game. They do look cheap and amateurish (I am an armature after all, but still). If I had it to do all over, I would have commissioned 5-7 pieces of decent art (perhaps from Ed) and used them.

Thought #2: Art should enhance the understanding or the experience of your game. Artwork can be very important in communicating your thoughts to the reader. Imagine someone new to RPGs picking up DnD 3.5 that had no illustrations in it. How hard would it be for them to really conceptualize the difference between a half-orc and a dwarf? The pictures help form the mental pictures that the players of your game will use during play. You want those pictures to communicate your intent for the game and make the experience better. If they can’t do that, why have them? And in this case, “art” can include things like charts, graphs, and models for what you want actual play to be like. Use art that tells the reader exactly what your game is about, don’t use art just to take up space. Trust me, people will notice.

Thought #3: Organization is really important. One of the biggest obstacles to understanding any piece of writing is poor organization. For RPGs this includes both the order of information and the arrangement of that information. When I say “order” I’m talking what information you tell them first, then second, then third, and so on. I developed an outline early on that really helped me get organized. I highly recommend creating an outline. It makes the writing process easier and shows YOU where breakdowns in understand could occur. When I say “arrangement” I’m talking about layout elements. This is everything from chapter headings, to sub headings, to page number locations, and so on. Are you consistent throughout the book? How do you highlight things that are important? Is the text you use for examples differentiated from the normal text of your game? Things like this must be considered well before you go to press.

Thought #4: Spelling errors are lame. Cutthroat has ‘em. Every game does, but it’s something we can all work on. Spell-check was a great invention, but it doesn’t catch everything. Never assume all the errors are taken care of in the word processor. I’ve been burned by them many times.

Thought #5: You can’t edit your own work. Seriously. Whenever I read my own writing I get caught up in the emotions and thoughts I was having at the time I wrote it. I start finishing the sentences in my mind before I actually finish reading them. When that starts to happen, I miss every error on the page. You really can’t check your own writing for mistakes. Give the final draft of your game to someone else to read, preferably someone with a little background in writing and/or editing. A teacher or college professor (if you are on close enough terms with them) is also a good choice. I also recommend letting someone familiar with RPGs but not familiar with your game give it a look. If they are familiar with RPGs, then they will know basically what you are asking them to do. However, they will also spot areas where you aren’t explaining it well enough. A recommendation: at least 3 people outside yourself should read your game before you go to print. (please note: that’s just a recommendation, not a requirement).

After: (Follow-ups, Promotion, Supplies)

Dealing with printers, webmasters, and postal workers can be a real pain. It’s a lot coordination, and a lot of things have to go right for you to get your game into customers’ hands. It’s not easy coordinating all of that, especially if you have promised your customers they’d have their books by some sort of deadline. I’ve learned this the hard way twice now, so I’ll share might thoughts on it with you:

Thought #1: Printers have a hard life. Chances are whatever printer you go with, POD or not, their core business is not RPGs. RPGs make up a small, small part of a much larger printing market that you can’t blame a company for going after large orders. In America, we like to think all customers are important- and they are- but some are more important than others. If you’re ordering 50, 100, 200 books your order is miniscule compared to orders that printer probably receives on a regular basis. And things that are small can get lost. I don’t blame the printer so much as I blame technology and large companies submitting urgent, lat minute orders. Therefore I highly highly highly highly (that’s four highlies if you’re keeping count) recommend that you follow up with your printer every WEEK! Each week I would call to make sure they got the order, to make sure there are no problems with the files, to make sure your payment was received, to make sure the shipping address is right, to make sure proofs are coming, and so on and so on. There are a dozen or more things that can go wrong on a printing job. A printer with hundreds of orders can’t keep track of them all. Therefore it is up to YOU to make sure your job gets done right and gets done on time. Don’t be afraid to call them. And especially don’t be afraid to call them often. I promise, you’ll regret it if you just let things slide and hope for the best.

Thought #2: Get proofs! How things look on your computer screen and how things look on their printer will be different. Promise. It might sound crazy at first, but everyone’s system is slightly different. The print job on Cutthroat was very different from what I expected. I asked for proofs, but didn’t get them. I let it slide. I wish I hadn’t. Always get proofs. Look them over. It’s your last chance to fix any mistakes and make your product the best it can be. Don’t pass it up.

Thought #3: Pre-orders are good. Of all the ways to promote your game going in, taking pre-orders is one of the best IMO. You get to brag about your game a little bit (which is okay as long as it’s not taken to an extreme), you get to brag about how many people are ordering your game, and you get to show off you own excitement about your game. Pre-orders tell people that you are confident in your game’s ability to provide fun play. They will see your excitement and get caught up in it. Start a blog, post on Internet forums, and talk up your game at your local FLGS and get some pre-orders.

Thought #4: A lot of money can be sunk in shipping and handling. Investigate the costs of shipping your game to your customers. This is very important. Getting padded envelopes, postage, and whatever else you need to package with your game can be expensive. Shop around both in stores and on the Internet for good prices on the supplies you need. Talk to your local postmaster about what the best and most economical way to ship a book is. Make sure you have budgeted enough for supplies and double check your shipping and handling fees (if you charge any) to make sure it’s an adequate amount. Look for sales on the stuff you need (incidentally, I think Walgreen’s has a sale on envelopes every now and then), and then stock up on it.

For now, that’s the best advice I can give you when it comes to printing your RPGs. It is a lot more complicated than it seems at a first glance. There are many things that can go wrong, and you’ve gotta stay on top of them all. Despite some of the negativity in this article, I do have to say that publishing an RPG is a very rewarding process. It’s just also very hard and not for someone who isn’t fully dedicated to the project. Remember that, “Fully Dedicated”



Wednesday, January 10, 2007

A Rare Opportunity


This goes out to all your self-published RPG designers out there. The Forge is doing its booth once again at GenCon Indy this year. You can read up on it HERE. If you've never been, this is a golden opportunity. The $100 buy in is a steal. A regular booth all by yourself will run ya close to $1,100. So, if you think you might be interested (regardless of what you think about the Forge as an entity) you should consider signing up.