Wednesday, July 29, 2009

What Are Some Common Pitfalls?


I’ve been going over several design threads. There are some common questions I see newer designers raise that in the end, really don’t matter all that much. I recall when I was working on my first RPG design and having many of the same concerns and fears as they do. I made a lot of mistakes back then because of stuff I was worrying about so much. I realize now that many of those mistakes and concerns were pointless of worry over. For the most part, I have overcome these fears and, in this post I hope to enumerate what they were and why they really don’t need to be worried about.

#1: Don’t include something extraneous in your game just to “please everybody.” Here’s why: you won’t ever please everybody, and you certainly won’t sell your game to everybody. Does your sci-fi game need psionics to make it more appealing? No! If something like that enhances your game, great. Put it in there. But it’s totally not necessary for the game to be complete, appealing, fun, marketable, or anything else along those lines (same goes for magic in a fantasy game). Don’t include something solely because you think it might increase your buying audience. Chances are, it won’t. Focus on what your game is really about and use your mechanics to enhance that.

#2: Don’t worry about creating a whole line of products based off your initial game. There’s no good reason to do that. You don’t know how your initial sales are going to do, let alone any supplements. Chances are you’ll end up saving some of the really cool stuff for some later supplemental manual. If that second (or third or fourth) book never comes out, people will miss out on all the fun they could have had with your game. Why would you not want to include the really fun stuff in your first RPG anyway? In addition, after your game has been on the market for a bit and some actual play has gone on, you may find that what you originally planned to expand isn’t nearly as interesting as something new that’s come up. The future is way too unpredictable to *plan* on a whole line of products. So don’t waste your energies designing supplements if your first book isn’t even out yet. Don’t hold out on the players.

#3: Speaking of books, don’t get caught up in thinking that your RPG isn’t a real RPG unless it’s in printed, book 8.5” x 11” format. PDF games are just as real, just as viable as printed games and cost a fraction of the start-up price. There are plenty of outlets now for online sales of PDF games like RPGNow, Drivethru RPG, Lulu, and many more. Don’t fall into the trap of believing in the “my game will be better if it’s hard bound with nifty color illustrations…” mentality. Do what makes best business sense for you. If it’s going strait to print, fine. If it’s starting out as a PDF first, then super!

#4: If this is your first RPG, don’t make what creative agenda your game supports the first thing you worry about. In fact, you probably shouldn’t worry about it at all. Creative Agenda will emerge from your design and the conversation process you have with folks on design boards and even more in Actual Play. To be sure, the CA is important, but look at the Big Model illustration in the Provisional Glossary on the Forge. The CA is only one part of what a game is. Don’t obsess about it first thing. Describe what kind of play you’d like to see for your game and go from there. Your playtesters will be invaluable in helping you hash all that out.

#5: Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. That is not what the design forums and blogs do. The only way you’re going to get useful feedback is if you divulge everything your game is about. The people interested in helping aren’t interested in stealing from you. They can’t do so with incomplete information. Also, bare in mind that only a game text can be copyrighted, not the mechanics. If people really do want to copy your design, there’s not much to stop them. And if your game really is so brilliant that everyone does want to emulate it, there can be no better advertising for you than that. Everyone will be talking about your game as they go to write their own. It’s a win-win situation for you.

#6: Don’t obsess over the name of your game. When it comes to sales, the name isn’t going to make all that much difference. Take “Sorcerer” for example. It’s a rather simple and plain title. Ron didn’t invent the word, and the idea of a guy summoning a demon has been around forever. So why do we think that name is so cool? It’s because of what’s between the covers. That’s what sells the book. It’s not a flashy or weird name, it’s the content. Now one may point out Vincent Baker’s brilliantly named “kill puppies for satan” RPG. It definitely has a name that grabs attention and one might thing that would lead to extra sales. I’m pretty sure Vincent would back me up on this when I say that he wouldn’t have sold half the copies he has if it weren’t for the content inside. If a game sucks, it won’t matter what the name is. If it’s great, the name will just be window dressing. If it’s mediocre, the name won’t save it.

#7: Have faith in your playtesters and by extension, your audience. Players will play your game with the objective of having fun. Trust them to do that. They will find a way to make the rules work for them. You don’t need to extensively and exhaustively explain every rule and possible permutation. Your job as the designer is to create an evocative setting, a compelling premise, a workable set of mechanics, and a satisfying reward system. The players will take care of the character, color, and situation. Use examples, but not a litany of do’s and don’ts. Your players can figure that out on their own.

#8: Don’t change something about your game unless you are positive how it works. One play session is not a large enough data set to truly understand whether or not mechanic is working. Give it several sessions and talk about it in Actual Play forums before deciding to change it. Sometimes you’ll find that a mechanic isn’t really broken, it’s just illuminating an aspect of the game you hadn’t considered before.

#9: Don’t feel intimidated by those who have gone before you. You are not expected to produce a Dogs in the Vineyard, Burning Empires, or Spirit of the Century. Vincent, Luke, and Fred are who they are. You are someone different, unique, and equally valuable. Your game can stand on its own. The only person you should compare your work to is yourself. Work until you’re happy with it, not until you think some RPG luminary would be impressed by it.

#10: The last thing I’m going to list is don’t worry about being made fun of or hated here at the because of what you design. More often than not, the hurtful kind of criticism stems from the criticizer’s own insecurities. Remember, the games you create should please you first and others second. As long as you are happy, you are successful. Everyone else can piss off. Be brave, put your design out there and let people play it.At some point I have tripped up on every one of these mistakes myself, and I’m sure plenty of others here have too. But I don’t anyone else to have to go through the crap I did. It took me a long time to come to an understanding that it’s okay to design the kind of game I like. I don’t have to be ruled by fear; instead, I can be ruled by courage. I hope that my meager words here have helped some. We’re all in this together. Mistakes are okay as long as you learn from them, and it is my hope that you can learn from mine. Nothing would make me happier.