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Open game design project, Part 2

[ Read Part 1 ]

So, make your case! Why should a designer get involved with this open system idea?

The most important thing is that this can expand the reach of your designs, with less effort on your part. You will have a target audience who turn to this game system to meet their needs. You’re a part of that, and it improves as more designers participate. If it works, it’s a virtuous cycle for stuff you create, which also means you get more time to design new stuff and need to do less in marketing to reach a larger audience.

Obviously, there is a trade off. You have less freedom in design if you’re going from an existing frame work like this open design would be. I think the trade off is worth the benefit of a wider audience.

But, I want to know more about what kind of game system this will be.

Without a finished game system, it’s hard to completely answer. And, the explanations below could easily evolve or change.

I see two options for this game system.

First, it may be possible to begin with an already existing game system. I’m open to that possibility, but I want the system to meet goals I have in mind (I’ll get to those below). I’d prefer an existing game by a published designer. And, I suspect it would be modified for this. That would be up to the designer, of course.

Second — and this option seems more likely — we have a team of designers create the game system following agreed upon guidelines. I have guidelines in mind, as well as a target audience in mind.

Interesting. Let’s hear about the guidelines.

Fair enough. Let me start with a few quick examples that I think are in the ballpark, so to speak.

Keep in mind, these are just shorthand for the kind and scope of game I have in mind. I’m sure there are many other relevant examples.

Now, on to more specific guidelines. My assessment is that the game needs:

  • Modular design — designers (and players) can add and subtract components.
  • Easy session preparation.
  • Quick, but compelling and rich, character creation.
  • Versatility – suitable for one-shot and campaign play (say, 12-20 sessions).
  • Simple learning curve – easily explained in minutes, including a dice/resolution mechanic.
  • Enough complexity (e.g., exceptions-based rules) to keep game compelling.

These guidelines will develop and shift through initial phases, then again in design and playtesting. But, it’s a start.

What if those guidelines aren’t my thing?

I guess that leaves three options.

  1. Don’t participate. Do your own thing. And, you can always use the open system later if you change your mind.
  2. Just modify the game system (once it’s ready) to do what you want. Of course, the more you stray from the core concepts, the less benefit you get from the audience. But, the idea here is to allow for variations upon the core game.
  3. Get involved right away, and help design or advise the actual game system core.

What about that target audience thing? Do you think a target audience is really worth considering in this small niche?

I do. If I’m wrong, I doubt the downside is any disaster.

The idea I have in mind for this audience will shift as this develops, no doubt. But, it’s still worth examining. Here’s a “persona” I have in mind (who is male here, but could be female, of course):

  • He’s as an existing gamer. He’s around 30+ years old, and has been playing different RPGs for a while. He’s not a hard core, D&D only person.
  • He works full time, and maybe has a family or active social life with a significant other. He’s busy! He needs a game that fits those constraints in his life.
  • His game group is also busy, and they have similar needs!
  • He’s either the frequent game master, or an early adopter of new games — the guy who has a ton of games on his shelf.
  • His group isn’t as interested in early adoption and new games. He has to convince them to try new games, sometimes unsuccessfully. They may even voice reluctance for “those indie games.”
  • He’s interested in character driven play. But, he still wants enough “fiddly bits” to make play interesting, too.
  • He’s creative! He’s has lots of cool ideas, and needs a good solution for those ideas.
  • He has a fondness, even nostalgia, for a few particular RPGs. And, he’s a bit disappointed that he now realizes so many of those games have disappointing rules, but exceptionally cool ideas. Or, maybe someone in his groups hates the game he loves. These games he loves have great settings or back stories or other components. He wants to run the settings “in another system,” but he can’t find the right one.
  • He’s not interested in distinctions between “indie” games and “traditional” games. They are just RPGs. He just wants to enjoy games.

Ok, that’s a lot of information. What now?

I want to assemble a small design team. I’m particularly looking for 2-3 comrades who’ve designed and published, and who are willing to help design the core. It’s no small feat, and will require serious effort.

Following that, we’ll need more design work from other designers following that. And, the project requires plenty of playtesting as well.

Consider this the announcement the project is underway. Contact me via replies here or by email if you wish to be involved.

I’ll add more blog posts here with additional next steps, including how the open license will work, who’s participating, and more guidelines and frameworks for the game system.

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28 thoughts on “Open game design project, Part 2

  1. Pingback: Open game design project, Part 1 | Stories You Play

  2. gravity on said:

    I fit the “persona” perfectly, except my gaming friends are, by and large, not as adverse to indie/avant garde games as above. I’d love to get involved in play testing down the line.

  3. joshroby on said:

    Would Lady Blackbird be an appropriate addition to your list, Matt? You’ve got Solar up there, and there’s something about Keys that seems very central to a certain kind of game. Are you aiming for that kind of game?

    I am intrigued…

  4. Gah! You just described me to a T as the “persona.” I realize we’re a significant group of people, we who fit that mold, but it’s eerie to see myself pegged there.

    Which means I am interested in what’s going on here.

  5. tomc on said:

    I’ll echo Daniel on this: add about ten or so years to your demographic model up above, and that’s me. 🙂

    And I, too, am interested in what goes on here.

  6. Josh, yes, Lady Blackbird is in the vein, definitely. I didn’t include it simply because it’s written in such a way that requires some knowledge of techniques not encoded in the game itself — that is, more so than most longer games.

    Gravity, Daniel & Tom — you’re in the target. So, do you agree that a game that suited your needs is worthwhile? Seems you’re interested. Do you think you’d add anything to that idea, something more you need?

  7. gravity on said:

    Interested indeed. As I mentioned in your previous blog post, I am quite new to indie games, but just as the “persona” above, I finally feel that RPGs are offering what I have always wanted. I’ve been gaming for over 20 years, and always tried to push the bounderies for what can be done, and always known that more can be done, but not until know seen it in action, working out around the table beautifully.

    I think it would be useful, for designers of course but also for me and my fellow players, to have a one stop shop community for all, or at least some, of my gaming needs. Both system-wise (I read many new RPGs but the others in my group do not) and community-wise (the feeling of being part of something bigger, to exchange ideas, to be “involved”).

  8. jenskot on said:

    This demographic may also:

    – Schedule game night like a poker or movie night with friends, often on a weeknight for 2-3 hours.

    – Play more board / card games (even though their friends reminisce about playing RPGs) because they are easier.

    – Are computer savvy, with broadband internet, and many but not all have smart phones.

    – Have some level of college education.

    – Consume other genre media like comics and fantasy or scifi novels.

    – Work in a creative field, have dreams of doing so, or have creative hobbies.

    – Love socializing with similar people.

  9. John, fully agreed on every single bullet item you just posted.

  10. Tom C on said:

    I’d certainly be all about the modular nature, something that suits my needs that is adaptable or can be changes as my needs change. I’m not sure if I’ve got any sauce or brilliance to add right now, only that this kind of project strikes me as hitting a triangulated sweet spot right twixt Savage Worlds, PDQ, and FATE, which also tend to be the systems I contemplate most for the kind of gaming I want to run or play these days.

    Devil’s advocate question here, though (which should not be construed as opposition or lack of support for your project idea): why craft up another system, if systems like SW, FATE, and PDQ are already out there, and easily adaptable? I certainly don’t object to a plethora of systems, but I imagine this is a question that will come up (assuming it hasn’t already in other fora or venues you might have discussed this).

    • Hi Tom — your question is valid, definitely! I do not rule out using existing systems, including those you mention. That will have to shake out soon, of course.

      I guess my answer for now is that I’m interested in whether a system with more “story guts” can be built from the ground up. (shrug)

  11. jenskot on said:

    Wizards (I believe) is hoping to service the same people with the new Boardgame / RPG hybrid, Castle Ravenloft… http://www.wizards.com/dnd/Product.aspx?x=dnd/products/dndacc/207790000

    Here is an MP3 of Mike Mearls discussing Castle Ravenloft in detail:
    http://media.wizards.com/podcasts/DNDXPSeminar5.mp3

    In many ways, our equivalent FATE community is all of Story Games, except tied together by play techniques and design philosophies rather than a single game system.

    I’m unfortunately incredibly busy, but I’ve often daydreamed about doing this with D&D 4E.

    Essentially taking Skill Challenges and evolving them into Story Challenges. Story Challenges aren’t a single Encounter, they are an entire adventures with a unifying theme.

    The “Dogs in the Vineyard” Story Challenge would use what’s awesome about Dogs to create a 1 shot for D&D that comes with a loose module / adventure structure, Dogs inspired skill challenges, and possibly extend character creation (which NPCs are you connected to in this town).

    Because of the system matters philosophy, individual Indie Games are so good at doing very specific things, that sometimes when I’m playing D&D I want to use Burning Wheel’s Duel of Wits for that dramatic trial after the war we lost or My Life With Master for that one adventure where we all became thralls under the lich king. But the logistics as is are impractical.

    Of course there is a whole list of issues doing this with D&D 4E from GSL restrictions to being unable to print certain products (like cards with rule summaries) to not having access to their character creator.

    Ultimately the business model needs to both attract talented creative contributors as well as large groups of passionate players. A way to reward contributors and make it extremely easy for new players to try (lots of free and easy to use content).

  12. Tom C on said:

    Matt, I grok that, totally. I want to see those guts as well — ewww 😉 — hence my interest in what you’re talking about here. Each of the systems I’ve mentioned give me much of what I’m already looking for, but I’m always interested in what else/what more can be done.

  13. northerain on said:

    I’m interested, though I’m not published (yet!).

  14. thor on said:

    My feeling lately is that we have lots of games because the system matters people have redirected the efforts people used to put into supporting some game into making their own. I think whatever system you work toward (and I support your making a new system) also try to keep people thinking about building settings and moduals for the new system as well.

  15. Thor, I really want what you describe to happen — people who build great settings and materials using the core system. Right on.

  16. tundranocaps on said:

    I am not sure about the distinction, which you help muddy further yourself Matt.

    Let’s look at FATE. And let’s suppose I take it to a new setting, and modulate the system to fit my different setting, genre, and/or theme. At what level is it not considered to be a modification instead of a new design?

    Though we do have a lot of really different systems as well, obviously.

    I’ll reply with thoughts regarding the OPs tomorrow.

  17. elberon on said:

    I’d love to help brainstorm ideas but not a published even net book writer so probably not who you’re looking for ;->
    I’d be interested in playtesting for you later on – your demographic description pretty much painted a bullseye on my forehead.

  18. thor on said:

    I think that whether to make a new game or support an existing game is a distinction which you have to make yourself. I am concerned with building a community around a system. If I am building a module for the system I am making the system stronger.

    If I am at a point in that module where the system won’t go where I need it to, I have the choice of writing a set of rules which can be bolted onto the system, or if the system isn’t doing what I need it to, then writing a new game to cover the situations I am trying to play.

    For too long we have tried to write new games for every instance of play. I have been guilty of this as well. At the same time we see a lot of borrowing of mechanisms between games to do this. We have a good understanding of “best practices” and it shows in the similarities of recent systems.

    I think that we are capable of crafting a strong extensible system and backing that system with a community providing a variety of ways of creating new materials. If all of this is backed with an understanding that there is a reason to market this system outside of the “Community” then the possibilities as they say are endless.

    I feel that by supporting the system we provide a better path to mastery of the craft. Learning to write good modules is a step we have eliminated from our tool kit of being good creators of games. Many of us write game after game to learn our craft trying to master all parts at the same time. This has led to an ash heap of abandoned games which isn’t helping any of us. By not re-inventing the wheel at every turn we can focus on specific aspects of the process and become masters of that which we are good at. I may be better than you at world building and you might be tremendous at crafting tightly bound character settings. We can do those things which we love and are good at better if we share a common system.

    Lastly, I think that the marketplace is a great tool for helping to strengthen our games. By having to think about the market you create something which is more robust than many of the things we creat for the community. That robustness will be tested and improved upon and what emerges will be a stronger product than the hot house flowers we are currently producing.

  19. Thor, great post. I think we’re on the same page!

  20. Guy, I view your point as academic. Even if a modification is truly a new game as theorists (including myself) would define it, I see little concern.

    The issue isn’t whether the audience actually gets distinct games. The issue is whether a) there’s an audience at all(!) and b) whether the new game is sufficiently recognizable to them such that they are more willing to purchase and/or play it.

    For example, Mutants & Masterminds is by every measure a very different game from D&D 3.0. It’s reward systems are different, it’s damage systems are different, and so on. But, there are sufficiently recognizable items that it had a wide rate of adoption among D20 fans.

    This isn’t about the intricacies of design as much as it is about the vagaries of hobbyist preferences.

  21. christopherweeks on said:

    This is kind of exciting.

    Something else about the persona: he wants to be able to play the same system with his regular group and also his kids.

    I’m trying to imagine the modularity. Without details how anything works, what are the foundational modules? Resolution is central, yeah? Setting seems easy to point to. Is character creation a module? Or several? Or part of setting? Etc.

    • Christopher, that is a fantastic idea. I had not thought about the wanting his kids to play angle. It’s definitely something to consider.

      Foundational modules would include resolution, yes. I envision character creation as several possible modules — could be done with paths, with clever questions like Best Friends, or just “point buys”, etc. But, all would feed into some basic concepts.

      I actually have penned out a rough concept that I’ll be posting later on. It identifies all the pieces of characters, suggesting how each component could be completed in different, modular ways.

      For example, one of items on the diagram I’ve got is “Aspects/Traits.” And, what it means is a character quality that not all characters share. So, rather than an “Attribute” like Strength in D&D that all characters have, it more like an Aspect of Heart of Gold from FATE, which only some characters (or one!) would have.

      But, each individual “trait” works the same way. So, Heart of Gold gives a bonus die (or whatever thing) pretty much the same way that Strong does, just in a different fictional context.

  22. Now, I will plead to knowing next to nothing about marketing. But it seems to me that you’re looking at things through the wrong end of the telescope. If your goal is to “grow a community that will appreciate our game designs,” is starting with the design the best decision? Where does the community come in? What do they get out of being community members? What do they contribute, and why do they care?

    I bring this up because my own impulse is always to start with design, and my own marketing has not been very successful.

  23. Hi Michael,

    You raise excellent questions. The community of enthusiasts for particular games or sets of games is the goal, yes.

    Therefore, I don’t rule out starting either with an existing community, or with an existing game with an existing following. But, given the way I want to do this, I’m not sure what that existing group or game is. In the indie scene, I can think of three possible groups.

    First, the FATE community. This one is actually among the most plausible to me. FATE’s already open source and has a following. I have my own personal biases against it, but there’s a good deal there that’s interesting.

    Second, the Burning Wheel community. Here, the game is not open. I have no idea whether Luke would open it. He might be more inclined to license. The following’s pretty good.

    Third, I think Vincent has a comparable (if not quite as big as the first two options) following. But, his games are highly unique and well designed. People dig his games precisely because they’re so brilliant, and because they’re by him. He’s got his own brand! Bottling Vincent up and selling him’s impossible, to say nothing of getting his permission to hack his games to pieces.

    Now, there may also be some community outside the creator-owned scene. I’m open to suggestions on that front.

    Regardless, to accomplish what I’ve described requires a bit more hacking. Rather than just creating a game system, I’m suggesting we create a system for game systems. A framework. I’m not sure how that happens with, say, FATE. But, it’s plausible.

    So, when I reviewed all those options and my goals, I decided a new design is the best fit.

    It’s a massive uphill climb from there. So far, that’s evident that interest in designing the core isn’t happening yet! I’ve still got to make some inquiries, maybe convince a couple designers this is worth doing.

  24. I guess what I’m not understanding is how your plan is *different* than the whole “if you design it, they will come” paradigm that a bunch of us have been doing, with varying levels of success, for years now.

    As I understand it, your plan is saying that “Step 1: Design a new game system” is going to lead to “Step X: Have passionate, supportive community of players on the scale of FATE/BW/Lumpley” just because the game system is different.

    However, there are tons of games that started with “Step 1: Design a new game system” that actually lead to “Step X: Have limited exposure and few sales on the scale of Nine Worlds / Serial Homicide Unit”.

    I don’t understand how modular design is supposed to shift the odds in a favorable direction. Maybe I’m just being dense, but it looks like doing the same thing and expecting a different result. And that way lies madness.

    When I read your PART 1, I figured you would be centering your plans on community development and how to get players to talk to one another about your game and their experience of your game. Mr. Hicks had laid out his thoughts on the matter in this blog post. It seems to me that the communities you’re trying to emulate (at least FATE and BW) excel at communication BETWEEN players, with communication FROM creators TO players being a less-important component of community membership.

    In the “good ol’ days” of The Forge, was it all great and energized because Ron was telling us what to do, or because we were excited about exploring one another’s ideas and contributing our own?

  25. Ah, I see more what you’re talking about Michael.

    I haven’t discussed much how marketing would work here (in ways different from Nine Worlds or Serial Homicide) and how the community could help.

    The marketing’s more important in terms of success here than the particular game system itself. It requires some critical early successes — for example, getting designers involved who bring with them some level of recognition among hobbyists. Or, getting publishers on board early with the same effect.

    From there, actually building and hosting the tools to foster a community is the next step. At least one “hub” site with community activity is key. With that, direct marketing in the form of registered users and consistent, regular email newsletters is important, too.

    That community must also allow members to post and share their own hacks, games, components, etc., thus contributing to the usefulness an broader application of the game.

    All of this is different from you or me publishing our particular games for a couple key reasons. First, it distributes the effort among participants, rather than requiring individuals like you and me to do the work. Second, it allows interested gamers to do the same — they’re given platform for creation, evangelizing, and so on. And, it does it all in a framework that still allows creators to own, create and sell their work. (Rather than, for one example, me starting a company and getting a bunch of people to either freelance for me or license material.)

    I’m not saying this is a simple matter. It can, of course, fail miserably. But, I don’t agree this is the same thing, expecting a different result. My take was that I was tired of not having good options outside of what you describe, so give it a shot anyway.

  26. tundranocaps on said:

    Matt, my point was that perhaps it’s a hack, even if a serious one, rather than a new game…

    Anyway, leaving that aside, how do you view the concept of taking what you like from each game? Such an amalgamation would be a new design, but yeah, I guess beginning from scratch with just the aesthetic might work out better than cannibalizing other games, though I think that’d work out well as well (I’m considering something of the sort for something of my own right now).

    I’m curious about Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies, do you mean PDQ#? It seems to me that setting is not irrelevant and disconnected from what you’re aiming for. Even if it’s modular and should fit several settings, it still seems like there might be a “gist” aimed at. I’m not sure how to put it any better.

    Last, I feel a big “lite” and “crunchy” tension. But I guess many of the games we love the most engage in this fight… both the ability to pick it up and make all sort of stuff work in it, and yet be mechanically engaging.

    I am very interested to see how this progresses, I’ll try to pitch in with an idea or comment when possible.

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