Tuesday, April 15, 2008

What do I do if I get Stuck?


Sooner or later every designer gets blocked. His (or her) game reaches a point where the design problems have no visible solutions or the play produced by the game isn’t hitting the goals he set for it. If it hasn’t happened to you yet, it will. So what can a person do? I’ve got six ideas that I’ve used in the past to help me get past design difficulties. Hopefully some of them will resonate with you as well.

Suggestion #1:

The first thing I suggest you do is to let your game sit for a while. Take three to seven days off from working on it. Then come back to it with fresher eyes and see if a solution reveals itself. Sometimes you may need to let a game sit three to seven weeks or three to seven months. Or even longer! That’s okay. In fact, it’s great. Letting a game incubate in your mind is much more preferable to forcing it out under some arbitrary or non-existent deadline. There’s no rule that a game should take only one year or two years or however long to finish. If a game you're working on needs more time to get right, then take the time to get it right.

Suggestion #2:

One thing I’ve found very helpful over the years is asking for help in an online forum. The Forge and RPGnet and even Story Games all have forums dedicated to designers and have offered me direct help in the past. I wouldn’t start a thread on each of them all at the same time. Each site will give you a totally different flavor of help. I have found that doing them in succession really helps you develop a better train of thought and a more complete idea of how outsiders view your game. Taking the time to digest what one site says regarding your design prepares you better for the questions and suggestions that the next site will give. The insight of veteran designers is invaluable IMO. I have found it most helpful in overcoming my own design blocks.

Suggestion #3:

Sometimes, if you get stuck, the “stuckness” may be a sign that the game is ready for playtesting. If the game is already in closed playtesting, it may mean that your design is ready for outside and independent testing. All your best guesses, intuitions, and mat calculations must come to an end at some point. There is only so much you can design through your own imagination and experience. There really is no substitute for playtesting. If you get to a point in your design work where you feel this is the case, put together an organized and readable prototype of your design. Then, turn it over to other people and start playing. You’ll be surprised how much you learn after the first session of playtesting. I guarantee it will be an eye-opener if this is your first time writing a game.

Suggestion #4:

Sometimes, even if you have had some playtesting done on your game, you may still have several design problems that need fixing. If the game is in a playable format, you might consider publishing it in PDF form for free. There are several free PDF makers online if you don’t have that capability at home. My favorite for simple PDFs is PDFonline.com. And there are several hosting sites like 1km1kt.net that will put your game up for free. If you have a Myspace page, you could use that too. Make sure, if you do this, to put the URL of any Actual Play or Playtesting forums in the text of your PDF. You want those who download and play your game to have an avenue to talk about their experiences in public. That way you can benefit from their play and have illustrations for how the game works in actual use.

Suggestion #5:

It is still possible that after a good amount of playtesting and putting your game up on the net for free that you could still have some mechanical issues with your design. If you have done several playtests and received feedback from outsiders on how your game plays, you may be ready to pursue an Ashcan publication. This is usually the final step one takes to solve all the last few design problems a game has before its full on publication. Matt Snyder and Paul Czege have lead the way in recent years when it comes to Ashcans. You can check out their Ashcan Front site here. In essence, an Ashcan is a beta publication that explicitly highlights the design goals and problems with the game in the text in the text of the game itself. It is sold relatively cheap (say $5-$10) and often comes with some sort of promise that anyone who buys, plays, and reports their results in a public forum will receive some kind of payoff in return once the game is published professionally. Typically, that is some sort of discount on a published copy but not always. An Ashcan is a great way to get that last 5-10% of your design polished up before a full public release.

Suggestion #6:

There is one final suggestion I have, though I hesitate a bit to make it. If everything else I have suggested here fails you, then you may want to consider abandoning the game altogether. If playtests, ashcan publications, letting the game sit for weeks, months, or years, and receiving help in online design forums all fail to give you the result you want for your game, then perhaps there is a problem with it that can never be solved. It’s possible that the type of play you are wanting to create with the game can never be achieved with your rules in that form. Sometimes this happens. It is NOT a failure. It is an experience that your learn from and take with you to the next design. Getting a game to that point takes a lot of serious effort and a lot of problem solving. Those experiences will help you in any future project you choose to undertake. Abandoning a game when all options have been exhausted is not a black mark on your record. It is a badge of honor that shows you’ve been through the war and come out a more experienced designer on the other side. It is not a defeat, but a foundation for future success.



Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Is Character Advancement Necessary?


When I was looking back over my Anthologies for this blog I was surprised I hadn’t really taken the time to cover Character Advancement. I mentioned it, briefly, in the Power 19, but I never wrote a full article on it to my satisfaction. I am correcting that oversight now.

Character Advancement is something that comes up during just about every design process. There are two questions that deal with it directly in the Power 19 and I usually give a whole section to it in my Design Outlines. The problem is that the P19 and Design Outlines don’t really give the reader any guidance as to what Character Advancement actually is nor do they state whether it is necessary for a game or not. So is Character Advancement necessary? Well… that depends on how you want to define “Advancement.”

The Provisional Glossary does not have an entry for that term, and “Advancement” gets used in many ways in many places. For a game like DnD, it usually means bigger numbers and larger resource pools. For a game like Dogs in the Vineyard, it can sometimes mean that and sometimes not. For a game like Standoff, as characters get more of what they want (Truth), their resource pools diminish- the very antithesis of DnD. So what is needed before we talk about whether or not Character Advancement is necessary for a RPG design is a common and agreed upon definition for it.

Coming to a common and agreed upon definition for any term in a community full of people where many pride themselves on individuality or who enjoy endlessly debating semantics is nearly impossible without years of work and numerous examples of that definition in practice. That’s not something one can really accomplish on a blog. Therefore, I’m not even going to try. Instead, what I am going to do is come up with a working definition for the purposes of this blog and this article. Bearing that in mind, I submit that we define Character Advancement as, “changes that happen to a character over time.”

I like this definition for several reasons. First, it is open to broad interpretation for designers and thus is unrestrictive in its use. Designers won’t be limited to what other games have termed as “advancement.” Second, it is a very inclusive definition. It covers the most traditional methods of Character Advancement as well as cutting edge techniques found in many independent roleplaying games. Third, it would be hard to find a RPG in which the player-characters do not, in some way, form, or fashion, change. And finally, I like it because this definition lets us definitively address the question this article poses.

Given the definition above, should a RPG have Character Advancement? My feeling is that it certainly should. As a story progresses, characters change. On a small scale, they age, learn, add new acquaintances, and increase their sphere of experiences. On a larger scale, they can become injured, deformed, powerful, famous, loved, hated, and so on. Mechanically in a RPG, characters can increase or decrease their resources, gain or lose access to other game mechanics (such as skills or feats), and progress further and further through the range or possible mechanical options or outcomes the game and the actual play have in store for them.

IMO, a game designer should consider all three realms of possible advancement (small scale, large scale, and mechanical) even if he rejects putting some of them explicitly into his rules text. Considering how characters might advance and how their advancement will impact other areas of the game like Setting, System, and Color is vital to ensuring a smooth transition from beginning play to finishing play. It’s been my experience that failure to include some form of advancement in a design will only force players to construct methods of advancement on their own either in conjunction with or in complete disregard of the rules as written. To me, that would not be desirable both from the designer’s perspective and the players’ perspective.

So, to sum up, character change over time is a necessary part of a RPG’s design. I call that change “Character Advancement,” and I truly believe it is a useful thing for designers to consider and implement as they create their game.



Wednesday, February 13, 2008

What Should I Design?


The best answer, in fact the only answer, to that question is, “Something you want to play.” In my experience, the games I’ve had the most fun playing and talking about are the ones where the designer created the instructions for play that suited his own play style and preferences- games where his vision for what he found fun in play was brought to life. I’ve most enjoyed games where the designer was inviting me to take part in the fun he was already having. Essentially, I guess what I’m saying is that if you create a game that is rocked-out fun for you and your group, chances are good it will be rockin’ good fun for someone else.

Why is that? Well, there’s several reasons. One of them, I think, is sincerity. When you read some text, it can be from any medium, where the author has intimate knowledge of the subject and is really excited about the topic, it is reflected in the writing. That sense of knowledge and excitement passes from the words to the reader and gets him excited and knowledgeable about that topic too. A game that is fun for you and your group is something you will be knowledgeable about and be really excited to share. That means a lot to a reader and increases the likelihood he/she will try it. Excitement is viral. For RPGs, excitement comes from intimate knowledge on how fun that game is to play.

Another reason is focus. Let’s take the phrase, “fun for someone else” for a sec. I’ve seen several novice designers (myself included) on various game design forums make statements like, “I’m going to make a game that appeals to a broad range of gamers, so that other people will buy and enjoy my design.” Other people…a broad range of gamers…Who’s that? Seriously, anyone know what that is? These phrases speak of an undefined, nebulous group of people without discussing for one moment the types of things they find fun in RPGs. DnD sells more than any other RPG, but does that mean each group enjoys DnD the same way? Don’t believe that for a minute.

One thing that an author in any medium must do is be aware of his/her audience. You have no experience being “a broad range of gamers” or “other people.” You do have a lot of experience being yourself and gaming with your friends. And the cool thing is, that you aren’t alone in the world. There’s all kinds of players out there who enjoy the same sorts of things you do. By trying to appeal to a nebulous cloud of something as intangible as “the majority of the RPG player base” you will totally miss something that is very tangible: “people like me.” And trust me, there’s plenty of those out there.

Another thing is timidity. A lot of first time designers are a bit timid when doing their first game. That’s totally understandable. It’s a daunting, difficult, and very personal undertaking. Some people (and I am an example of this) start feeling that success is more important that communicating what they love about RPGs, and how their design can do it better than any game before. So they start making compromises. Thoughts in the back of their heads start sounding like this: “Oh, no one else would do it like that. No one will understand, better take that mechanic out. More people will like your game if you just simplify and cut out a big chunk of your design. That’s not popular!” I hate those thoughts. They make designers betray the wonderful thing they are in an honest but misguided attempt to increase the audience for their game. Ignore those fears in the back of your mind.

One more thing that I feel is tremendously important to remember is that if you and your playgroups are enjoying your design, then your design is creating FUN! Fun play is the whole purpose of designing a game. If yours can do that, then you don’t have to worry about “a large portion of the gamers out there.” If your game is fun, more than enough gamers will come and find you. They’ll hear about your excitement, and the excitement of those who first tried your game, and they’ll line up to buy what you’ve got.

You see, you don’t really want to chase down “other people” to play your game by designing something you *think* they might find fun. (There’s always a chance, a big chance actually, you will be wrong) You get them by designing a game you find fun and that you’re excited to talk about and post play reports about. You get them by inviting them to join in on the fun you’re already having, by sharing that wonderfulness you possess as a person who loves RPGs.

What you *think* might be fun is unproven. What you’ve had fun playing is definitively proven. Which would you rather take to the market?



Tuesday, February 12, 2008

A Long Way Back

Hello there!

It has been a very long time since I have posted on this blog. The reasons are legion. If you want to read what I've been up to in the intervening time period between May 31 '07 and February 12 '08, you can read about it on my Design Blog.

This announcement is basically to serve notice that new articles for Socratic Design will be forthcoming. I'm looking forward to getting back to what I enjoy most.

As always, if you've got questions, ask 'em! See you soon! :)