Stories You Play

Home of RPGs by Matt Snyder, including Dust Devils, Nine Worlds, 44: A Game of Automatic Fear, and The Ladykillers

Archive for the tag “game design”

Catching up

Things are pretty quiet for me on the game design front. Don’t count me out just yet.

School’s in session

The main cause is graduate school. I’m getting my MBA at a challenging university, working full time (and then some), and raising two kids with my wife. As you can imagine, things get crazy. And, when class is in session, my leisure time is scarce.

I only take one graduate class at a time, in part because it’s tough to do with the kids. And, I get tuition reimbursement from my day job, but it only covers three classes per year. Hence, the long haul. For me, it’s a five-year program. I’m in my fourth year. Almost there, but not quite. I’ll finish sometime next year, either in summer or even fall 2012.

The house

Oh yeah! If you know me, you may have heard about my nightmare story about selling my old house. Well, that finally happened in October. Canada and I now live in an AMAZING house, and we’re still euphoric. The way things went for us, we pretty much wake up every day thrilled with our situation (and half expecting someone to snatch it away!). It certainly removed a very serious frustration from our lives, and we’re much better off now.

Reading & writing

Last winter, I also took a look at what I was doing with my time and how it could change. I missed reading fiction, in particular. So, I put a lot more effort into that, and resurrected my reading & writing blog, Riverwords.net. It’s been a real pleasure to do that so far.

That change also sparked my interest in writing again. I haven’t accomplished anything on that front, and I realize how much this competes for my time along with everything else. Once class started again this spring, any writing efforts I’d tried fell apart immediately. I’m still sorting out how to balance all this out, to be honest.

What about Indigo?

If you’re reading this, chances are you’re already familiar with my plans with Indigo, an open design that publishers could use to build a collective audience. I’ve posted about it previously, and I started a Google group about its development last fall. I’ve been silent there for a couple reasons. First, all that busy life stuff I mentioned above. Second, because I realized (Keith warned me!) that the group wasn’t the right way to go about this.

So, I’m sorry to group members for my silence and not explaining more. I hope to keep Indigo on life support long enough to reach better goals. But, I don’t think the group is the right way to proceed.

The funny thing about my hibernation as a game junkie is realizing how much I miss the creative process, and the satisfaction that comes from it. I really miss creating and collaborating. That collaborating part really fell away over the years, and it probably contributed to my frustrations with design and the indie scene as a whole. That’s a whole other topic, though.

Playing again

Things come full circle. The irony of me being away from the indie RPG scene and not doing much design is that I’m now having the most fun playing RPGs I’ve had in the last 7-8 years. I’ve written previously about how my local group and I have enjoyed playing Pathfinder. While the house situation put that on hiatus last summer and fall as I moved, we’re back to regular sessions. My group is having an absolute blast, and it’s the first time in years I’ve seen them so motivated to play. Usually, real life stuff gets in the way, and getting schedules to match is a pain. But, the last few months have been fantastic.

It’s a reminder to me of a couple things I took for granted. First, it’s been an eye-opener to see borders between the indie scene and more traditional gamers and games come into clearer focus. I see a lot of what I think the indie scene as I knew it did “wrong” in terms of not giving some people what they wanted out of games. Second, it’s also a sharp reminder how much actual play must be the foundation of designing fun games.

What now?

I wish I could say confidently where I’ll be in a year regarding my games and Indigo and other things. I just don’t know that, and can’t until my busy life gets a lot less crazy.

I have some ideas about what I’d like to see, but a lot of those take effort and collaborators. I’d like Indigo to get off the ground with an actual game launch and a kind of SRD that others could use to design with. I’m afraid I’ve probably let my relationships among designers atrophy; that’s one of my regrets. I didn’t intend it.

A partial road map to RPG structure

When I decided to create an open game design (see the previous two posts here), I started sketching out a basic framework for the concept. I’ve been working on it in greater detail this week, and I offer it up here for review and discussion.

Click the image to download a 11×17″ PDF of this chart.

This chart outlines a “roadmap” of how characters and conflicts interact in games. It is not a comprehensive structure of an entire game, nor an attempt to model all RPGs. Rather, it’s just a model to show one common shape I’ve observed in games, especially the kinds of games that I think inform this project I have planned.

I intend the chart to be a reference point for design. It outlines “components” shown as boxes and arrow flows here. Each box could be swapped out with alternative mechanics, allowing individual designers to tailor their creations while still staying “on the map.”

Speaking of designers, I’m still eagerly looking for a small design team to design the core system using this chart as one of our guides.

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.

Open game design project, Part 1

Last winter, I posted about my ideas surrounding marketing co-operatives by teams of creator-owned RPG publishers. This new post is the evolution of that idea — my solution to the puzzle of shared resources vs. creator ownership. Indulge my self-interview:

Hi, Matt. What’s up with you lately?

Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about how successful some indie RPG publishers have been because they have an identifiable audience. I just heard that Brad Murray, co-creator of Diaspora, sold 1,200 copies in about 1 year. He was quick to point out the boost he got from the FATE community. So, he had an identifiable market that really helped. (Congrats, Brad & crew!)

Let me guess, you want to make FATE games now so you can sell 1,000 copies of your next game?

No. I don’t prefer FATE as the way to go. But, the model is compelling. What I’d like to do is a get a bunch of designers together to create something FATE-like, and then turn it loose so anyone can design on that framework, while simultaneously building a market. Oh, and I mean FATE-like in the sense that it’s an open game, not that it uses Fudge dice and uses Aspects and all that.

Wait, back up. So, this is just like D20/OGL then? That’s so last decade!

To some degree, it’s similar. But, no, I’m not advocating D20 games here. I suppose it could use the OGL itself, just like FATE does. But, again, D20 isn’t what I’m after.

So, more like a universal system? That sounds even more lame.

I agree that so-called universal systems are not very good ideas.

So, rather than universal, let’s call it modular. What I envision is an open, modular game system. Designers can take the core bits, but then tack on parts as needed to create their game systems really have some cool, tailored components.

Overall, my vision for this thing would be a system for indie folks in the way that Savage Worlds is for traditional RPG lovers. That is, a lean, mean machine for running a variety of character-driven games. So, think of it as Savage Worlds for people who like lots of character development and story in their games. Fast, furious drama, so to speak.

So, what are you after, exactly? This doesn’t sound very new or worthwhile.

The open design concept is not new. That’s true.

But, if it goes anything like I envision, it would be worthwhile. It would do two things

First, it would give gamers a great go-to game that they can customize for their play style.

Second, it would give publishers who use it an identifiable market, rather than having to create a market for each game, every time. This saves them time and effort. Players see the “core” of the system, and can easily pick up published variations. They play without a learning curve, and discuss it, expanding the community and word of mouth.

Hey, whatever happened to System Does Matter. I thought that was you guys’ mantra?

That’s fair. This idea does fly in the face of System Does Matter some.

The System Does Matter philosophy informed a lot of innovation and great games, including my own designs. I think it has considerable merit. What I’m talking about here isn’t meant as a direct challenge of that philosophy.

That said, there are many things that System Does Matter just does not address for obvious reasons. It doesn’t speak on distribution, creator ownership, marketing and so on, despite all these things being part of the conversation surrounding System Does Matter over the years.

Think of this as a new philosophy: Marketing Matters, Too. I’m not trying to polarize stances between design and marketing. They are not opposites, as some people in indie RPG publishing seem to suggest. In fact, what I’m suggesting is that the two merge as much as possible.

That means making design considerations based on what the market wants rather than on what the designer wants in some cases. I suspect there are at least a few designers – people who are friends of mine — who view that as blasphemy. That’s ok. I still think they’re great designers and great friends. And, of course, they need not participate.

So, what now?

Good question. I see this happening in phases. The first is making the case to fellow designers in particular. I’ll do that in a follow-up blog entry.

Then, assuming I can get a crew of designers together, we begin setting goals and expectations for the project, then on to design, playtesting, community support, and ultimately creator-owned publishing takes care of the rest.

[ Read Part 2 ]

Hi, Matt. What’s up with you lately?

Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about how successful some indie RPG publishers have been because they have an identifiable audience. I just heard that Brad Murray, creator of Diaspora, sold 1,200 copies in about 1 year. He was quick to point out the boost he got from the FATE community. So, he had an identifiable market that really helped. (Congrats, Brad!)

Let me guess, you want to make FATE games now so you can sell 1,000 copies of your next game?

No. I don’t prefer FATE as the way to go. But, the model is compelling. What I’d like to do is a get a bunch of designers together to create something FATE-like, and then turn it loose so anyone can design on that framework, while simultaneously building a market. Oh, and I mean FATE-like in the sense that it’s an open game, not that it uses Fudge dice and uses Aspects and all that.

Wait, back up. So, this is just like D20/OGL then? That’s so last decade!

To some degree, it’s similar. But, no, I’m not advocating D20 games here. I suppose it could use the OGL itself, just like FATE does. But, again, D20 isn’t what I’m after.

So, more like a universal system? That sounds even more lame.

I agree that so-called universal systems are not very good ideas.

So, rather than universal, let’s call it modular. What I envision is an open, modular game system. Designers can take the core bits, but then tack on parts as needed to create their game systems really have some cool, tailored components.

Overall, my vision for this thing would be a system for indie folks in the way that Savage Worlds is for traditional RPG lovers. That is, a lean, mean machine for running a variety of character-driven games. So, think of it as Savage Worlds for people who like lots of character development and story in their games. Fast, furious drama, so to speak.

So, what are you after, exactly? This doesn’t sound very new or worthwhile.

The open design concept is not new. That’s true.

But, if it goes anything like I envision, it would be worthwhile. It would do two things

First, it would give gamers a great go-to game that they can customize for their play style.

Second, it would give publishers who use it an identifiable market, rather than having to create a market for each game, every time. This saves them time and effort. Players see the “core” of the system, and can easily pick up published variations. They play without a learning curve, and discuss it, expanding the community and word of mouth.

Hey, whatever happened to System Does Matter. I thought that was you guys’ mantra?

That’s fair. This idea does fly in the face of System Does Matter some.

The System Does Matter philosophy informed a lot of innovation and great games, including my own designs. I think it has considerable merit. What I’m talking about here isn’t meant as a direct challenge of that philosophy.

That said, there are many things that System Does Matter just does not address for obvious reasons. It doesn’t speak on distribution, creator ownership, marketing and so on, despite all these things being part of the conversation surrounding System Does Matter over the years.

Think of this as a new philosophy: Marketing Matters, Too. I’m not trying to polarize stances between design and marketing. They are not opposites, as some people in indie RPG publishing seem to suggest. In fact, what I’m suggesting is that the two merge as much as possible.

That means making design considerations based on what the market wants rather than on what the designer wants in some cases. I suspect there are at least a few designers – people who are friends of mine — who view that as blasphemy. That’s ok. I still think they’re great designers and great friends. And, of course, they need not participate.

So, what now?

Good question. I see this happening in phases. The first is making the case to fellow designers in particular. I’ll do that in a follow-up blog entry.

Then, assuming I can get a crew of designers together, we begin setting goals and expectations for the project, then on to design, playtesting, community support, and ultimately creator-owned publishing takes care of the rest.

Bringing it all back home

My preceding post was about how to proceed as a publisher. All well and good, but what does that mean in terms of fun games people can get and play?

First off, it would mean making Dust Devils available again soon. This will mean something simple — like Lulu or a comparable offering — in the short term. If that goes well enough, Nine Worlds could follow suit. 44: A Game of Automatic Fear will continue to be a free-with-registration game. I don’t have plans currently to offer a print version, but that’s possible.

My intention is that all of these games would be secondary products. Which implies I have at least one primary product. Well, I’m working on it.

In fact, my design notebooks, as always, fill up with a smattering of game designs. I can dismiss some more easily these days. I have a sharper yard stick to measure up ideas. If I don’t think an idea has broader appeal among RPG hobbyists than, say, Dust Devils, the idea is done for.

One game concept keeps coming back, which is a good sign it’s the right one. The working title is Exodus Squadron.

The short version: It’s my take on Battlestar Gallactica (the new one, of course — yes, I realize there’s already a licensed RPG).

The not-as-short version goes like this: Players portray space fighter pilots. Their job is to protect a human fleet as it escapes bondage by an alien race, racing home. Characters come from the various castes of humanity enslaved. Play rotates among three playspaces — space battles, the mothership/fleet, and “away team.” Each playspace feeds into the others in various ways.

The game will be aimed at a maturing gamer audience, one that has great interest in such fun subject matter, but increasingly less time to prepare sessions and conduct play. The point will be exciting tactical combats mixed with dramatically paced downtimes and interesting exploration. Ideally, each session of play is a single stellar system or encounter, easily prepared (or downloaded) on 1-2 pages. These series of “jumps” comprise a campaign — say, a dozen such episodes before reaching a conclusion at the home world (presumably earth).

That audience is not necessarily “indie gamers,” by which I mean story gamers or those interested in narrativist play. If they enjoy the thing, fantastic. But, my intention spend efforts and resources reaching some sliver of other gamers.

Design for Exodus Squadron is still in early phases. I have some working bits and bobs, but no playtest is close. I have a strong vision for both the look and feel of the product, and for the color and themes of the setting and game.

I’ll be posting more about it as the game develops.

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