From the Ground Up
By The Warden
Back in late January, I reached critical mass. Without going into too much detail on this forum (those of you who may be curious can read about it on my personal blog), things in my life became more than I could handle and I needed some time to get them sorted out for mine and my family’s sake. The reason why I mention this is because a tough choice had to be made as a freelancer; some of my projects had to either go on hold or get chucked out the window entirely and the bulk of that work involved Mystical Throne Entertainment, the company behind this very site. Adding to my stress was the concern that I was really burning a bridge with MTE and its head honcho, Aaron T. Huss, just as things were really starting to take off. I’m pleased to say that not only was Aaron and MTE incredibly understanding on the situation, but encouraging to the point of insisting I take whatever time needed to deal with these demons and take care of my family. With that weight lifted from my shoulders, I took a break from writing and game design to put my life back together and there is no amount of appreciation I can express to Aaron for allowing me that time. At the very least, my hope in writing it here is to share with the world that Aaron T. Huss is good people and a true human being.
That being said, powering down the Lab (my nickname for the office at home) did not necessarily mean flicking off the switch in my head. While I wasn’t setting aside time to pound the keyboard, my mind did begin to wander around the void that is game design. Combine these random thoughts with some light reading in books like The Complete Kobold’s Guide to Game Design by Wolfgang Baur and his army of high-class designers before something began to develop. Something new and fresh, something that would bring me back to the Lab.
With feet planting firmly on the ground and my confidence returning, it’s time to get back to business and I’ve been wondering where to begin after such a long hiatus. What is there in the industry to discuss? The debate on why Numenera didn’t make ICv2’s Top 5 list of RPGs in the last quarter of 2013? The return of OGL to many new games/systems? Some other random topic? Or perhaps I could try and take things in a slightly new direction?
Under the Hood is about mechanics and game design. I’m also currently working on a new game with a brand new system built from the ground up. Why not merge the two together and use this opportunity to delve into the ins and outs of RPG mechanics by revealing my own personal process as I (try) to bring this idea to life? I say “try” because you can never be completely sure of a concept until you hit the Save button on that final, pre-edit draft. But that’s part of the design process, is it not? Something that should be noted and written about if it comes to that.
Honestly, I was on the fence about it at the start of writing this post, but now I’m more sold than ever. Not only would it be appropriate to the column, it would be hugely beneficial to me and my process. Along the way, I’ll use previous articles to demonstrate how they affect my methodology, how my opinions on these posts have changed since my last major design, or reflect and perhaps revise/add-on to those thoughts. Or maybe I’ll just branch into something completely different, who knows. Shall we then?
(A note before going any further. Until such time as I have unveiled this game, in one manner or another, to my Development Team, this game will not be mentioned by its soon-to-be true name. Instead, it has been given a codename as all upcoming projects do – Phoenix. Why the secrecy? Because my intention behind going through with this project is to design a game for my Development Team as a way of saying thanks for working with me on other ideas, especially when they didn’t quite work out. I want to make something that’s more fun for them than something else to playtest. When the time comes, they’ll know why a dark veil was kept over this project.)
LIST OF OBJECTIVES? CHECK!
While most game designers start with the game’s purpose or goal as their starting point (such as the desire to create a game of deep sea exploration or to design a game where characters are able to share their skills psionically), I’m too obsessed with the challenge of building a brand new system to start from there. For me, having a rough concept of how task resolution could work gets everything else lined up. The trick becomes asserting whether or not it’s the right fit for the game that’s been on my mind for a while (though sometimes the game falls in your lap once you have the mechanics worked out – that’s how Killshot came about.)
In this case, I have some rough mechanics and a potential game both lined up, so regardless of how things come about, there has to be a list of objectives I want to achieve with the end result. Doing so will also provide those of playing at home with a concept of where I want this to go and allow me opportunity to look ahead to the potential issues, difficulties, and benefits of this whole idea.
Here we go.
Quick gameplay. Like, really quick. My previous designs were always intended to feature fast gameplay, buuuuuut that’s never really come about. That’s exactly why it needs to be the absolute top priority for Phoenix. What I want is the time required for a player to realize it’s her turn, describe her character’s action(s), and determine success or failure should take about 30 seconds, no more than a minute. That’s why I was never confident about moving forward with any of the other random ideas swirling around in my head – I could never be certain it would play as fast as lightning. Or lightning in slow motion, which is still really fast. And since it’s going to use your standard RPG dice (oooh yeah!), that means limiting players to a single die with little to zero math in the way of bonuses or penalties.
Rules lite. As a fan of D&D from across the decades, my designs have reflected rules written over many pages with numerous character and GM options. While this will not be my first rules-lite design, it is a serious prerogative for Phoenix and it’s for two reasons. The first is that it lines up nicely with quick gameplay, the second is simply because I don’t want the emphasis of the game to be the rules. Which brings us to #3….
Serious emphasis on story. This one is going to have the most personal significance. Because of my propensity for mechanical design, I’ve been ignoring my more creative itches. More importantly, I want to enjoy running these games as any other GM rather than remain caught up on whether or not my target numbers are too high and if I should have considered stricter conditions for criticals. I want to get caught up in the character interactions, consequences for player choices, and plotting behind their backs while smiling at their faces. To do that, I want there to be a healthy dose of story to go with the mechanics.
Easy to learn. This may seem part and parcel with the gameplay objective, but it’s not necessarily a given. A design can require 50 pages of content to describe the basic rules and still fly across the table like the Flash while another could be a 7-page freebie that takes a full session to comprehend. I need to clarify things a little bit more and set a tighter objective: players do not need a copy of a rulebook or handouts providing the rules in any context. Everything they need has to be on the character sheet.
Versatile outcomes. The emphasis on the game should be on setting and attempting action, not on their tactical outcomes. For example, when you attack an opponent, you cause damage, maybe knock them on their arse and move onto the next turn. But that’s also not exactly what I want from this design; I want there to be the possibility for players/characters to do more than simply declare/roll/repeat. This is either going to be a little tricky in co-operation with the rules lite and easy to learn objectives or can fall hand-in-hand with them. Just like quick gameplay, the only way to know for certain it works is by putting it to the test and beating it up like a prison snitch. This final outcome is a bit expendable and shall remain on my radar during the crucial beginning phases, but will be scrapped if it gets in the way of the previous objectives.
And there we have it, folks. Five key objectives heading into this project that could take a few months or a couple of years to finally feel solid about. On their own, they may not seem too daunting or they may seem incredibly vague, but without them, I’m simply shooting from the hip.