Welcome to the latest Designer’s Diary, a column where designers are given the opportunity to take readers on an in-depth ride through the design and development process of their system, setting, or product. If you’d like to share your product in the Designer’s Diary column, send a message to email@example.com.
ScreenPlay is a co-operative storytelling game that’s a cross between the turn/action definitions and options of traditional roleplaying games with the freeform availability of story games. Players take on the role of the primary creators of an original story (and are therefore known as Writers) while the Director (the GM) keeps their story challenging and engaging to create and expand the plot and characters together.
The best way to (ironically) describe it is by defining probably the key aspect of the game’s mechanics: descriptions. Each turn is used to describe what a character is doing in a particular scene with description broken down into details. Think of a detail as an action, anything that helps drive the story or a character forward. At the start of a turn, the Writer chooses one of the character’s potentials (think of them as loosely defined attributes that combine to provide an overall view of the character’s appearance, personality, etc.). Each potential has a maximum number of details allowed per turn and which potential you choose is based on the moment at hand. With the potential as a guide, the Writer provides a description within the maximum number of details allowed and once they have maxed out their details, the description is over and it moves on to another player’s turn.
Certain descriptions will trigger a complication roll because the character is trying to complicate matters for another character. Let’s shine a spotlight on that: you don’t roll to succeed at a task, you roll to complicate something. This means there is no roll to detect something hidden, bash down the door, or anything else that’s only based on a success/fail dynamic (unless the Director decides to complicate matters for the character and force them to roll for it, but that can only be done by redeeming points known as challenges). The complication roll determines if the complication is effective or ineffective and whether the result is even- or odd-numbered will determine which player will lay down the full effects of the complication (meaning it’s possible for the affected character to choose their own complication).
Normally, the purpose for this section (see what I did there?) is to get into the purpose for playing the game and that’s very simple with ScreenPlay. It’s about telling a story, a shared experience evenly distributed between everyone at the table. While there are and will be more treatments (a kind of rough plot with defined characters, triggers, challenges and more) to help get your group started, these mechanics allow you to tell any number of stories without modifying the rules.
But there’s also the reason why I made this game. There’s two explanations for this: a compulsion to build games entirely from scratch (while also being consumed by them) and to create something for my Development Team. While working on my last game, Killshot, I really wanted to thank them for their work and patience in helping to shape that game, so I left the floor wide open to whatever they wanted to play. What they came up with was the basis for High Plains Samurai (a Wild West/wuxia/post-apocalyptic/superhero story) and so we set about trying to start it up using Killshot’s mechanics… but it wasn’t working. Something was missing, which lead me to start the slow process of putting something together that would become ScreenPlay. Along the way, I discovered its simplicity and availability to whatever crazy idea or unexpected choices came into play made it open to multiple genres, worlds, and story types.
I think that’s really one of the main strengths of this game: the numerous possibilities. During the later phases of the playtest, I ran a game of ScreenPlay where the players decided to play a reality TV dating show about transgender aliens vying to win William Shatner’s heart… even though he was a reanimated head in a jar. Using the same rules, I’ve also directed stories like Ironbound, a dark fantasy/action story of holy warriors sworn to eliminate all magick-users, and a 1930s-inspired murder mystery/monster movie taking place in a museum after hours. Without any modifications or additions, the same rules can handle a variety of story options.
Action movies are a big influence in the original concept for ScreenPlay and helped shape how the mechanics and turns function during play. I’m a big believer that if you have mechanics that can handle action first, they can handle other situations just as well using the same rules. Watching how action sequences play out and picking up on what makes them cinematic versus the reality of violence allowed me to pick up on a few key fundamentals… and they’re universal in how the lead characters of any story are expected to be competent and involved in reaching the conclusion, how their failures are part of the plot and not thanks to a bad roll. It’s the same across the board when it comes to how we view our heroes. I remember the first time I saw Clint Eastwood getting beat up in a movie. It was staggering because it was not the norm, yet that defeat was integral to the plot of that particular movie (can’t recall which one though).
A lot of my designs are based on negative influences too. Particularly when I feel there’s an absence of something in the games I play and that was the case as I started laying down the foundations for ScreenPlay. In the beginning, I wasn’t sure what was missing until players started taking initiative and asking to create story elements. It was a way for players to become more invested and enthralled by their experiences and let them be the guiding hand behind the story told in the game. All games do it to one degree or another, but most tabletop games involve multiple people reacting to one person’s story and story games, in my experience, required a redemption system of points or tokens for players to change the story in slight ways. It suddenly felt as if that’s what was missing from what I always wanted out of my roleplaying experiences, not to be bogged down by the dice telling me what happens and whether my character succeeds or fails; let them tell me what happens when I do something, not when I try. Once that piece locked into place, the rest of the puzzle just came together.
Once I had the concept and base mechanics in mind, setting it as a game featuring Writers and a Director took me back to my one-year attempt at film school back in my youth. Long, oh so long ago. It’s not that I went back and studied film and story again, but those classic scenes and (more importantly) emotions and memories of key moments in some of my favourite films came into play. As I mentioned before, I originally designed ScreenPlay as an action game capable of handling descriptive fight scenes that didn’t simply dwindle down hit points and offered an elaborate fight with easy-to-apply complications to eliminate threats and win the fight. During playtesting, it became more and more apparent these rules could apply to multiple story types and so adjustments were made to work off the base principles of storytelling and character development and the main lesson I walked away with… Characters do what the writers need them to do. If a character needs to live into the next scene in order to discover her boyfriend’s involvement with terrorist plots, then it happens. It’s all about control over the characters and how they impact the story while still creating tension and drama to keep the audience (in this place, everyone at the table) engaged and riveted to their seats wondering how this story will end.
This is the first time I’ve placed considerable thought into how I want the art direction of a game while still working with a budget. Plus it’s also the first time I’ve ever commissioned an original cover (thanks to the amazingly talented and easy-to-work-with Jeff Brown for that experience). In the past, I’ve defaulted to designing the cover myself with graphics and fonts doing the trick, something that seems kind of lowball at first. Art is a massive expense and (more importantly) a huge risk when it comes to While the temptation was there to go big and hope for a Kickstarter to solve my art budget woes, ScreenPlay itself is really just a beginning step for what I’d like to see as a winding staircase. I needed to showcase a variety of possibilities while keeping the financial risks low because this was not something I had designed before. Working on this game has really opened my eyes to how I look at roleplaying games, yet this is still new territory for me. Luckily, there is an amazing collection of stock art provided by professional freelance artists showcasing their talents, including some whose work can be seen in Numenera and other big name games out there. That leaves me with a guideline to build on what core rules and guidelines in ScreenPlay and begin offering story concepts/adventures (known as treatments), supplements, and expanded worlds ready to tell your version of the legend. Art can be a major cost, yet this was a compromise that’s created a really nice looking book that feels like it has original artwork. And keeping the costs of the core rules low allows me room to consider using more and more original art at an earlier rate than if I spent hard cash on the core book now.
There are two signs I enjoy seeing in people playing my games: laughter and fist bumps. And those are the same reactions people get with ScreenPlay. There’s a true freedom in playing this game because you truly feel like you are in control on your character and the story that character helps reveal with each turn. When I say players, I’m also referring to the GM (known as the Director here). Most games say they’re low prep, I’d go so far as to say ScreenPlay is “no prep.” You need to know the rules and even then just enough to keep page referrals in the rulebook to a minimum. The real work’s done by the Writers (everyone else in the game) because ScreenPlay flips narrative control from one side of the table to the other; all the Director has to do is react to what Writers describe using outcomes and their own characters and find ways to keep the plot moving forward… just like the Writers. Everyone has the same goal in mind and when it comes time to put it all together at the table, it’s a really magical moment. If you’re big on improvising in your games, this game is made for you.
Story games have surged over the past couple years and it’s a great thing. Most of them do involve a certain amount of narrow focus and tight control in what characters do through their motivations. What I mean is when you take something like Apocalypse World’s moves, you can’t use them as is to play The Warren because it’s all about the intention behind the moves. Everything has to be rewritten to fit the particular genre, style, or tone of story you want to create. Other games allow players to utilize narrative control, but only when they redeem points earned during gameplay. ScreenPlay has neither – the Writers are free to create as they see fit using the same rules for anything they want to tell. It works off the basic improv principle of “yes, and…” so everyone has to embrace what’s been brought into the story as it progresses.There is one net keeping everyone from swimming out into the deep end of the pool and it’s called the Rule of Initiatives. Whoever introduces something (or someone) into the story has final say when another player incorporates it into their description. If you create a kindly old man sitting on a park bench and another Writer suddenly describes him leaping through the air pulling off back flips like a gymnast, the initiating player can ask for a rewrite if that breaks from their intentions behind that character. Most of the time, players embrace what’s introduced so long as it doesn’t completely alter the course of the story laid down in previous turns. And that hasn’t happened yet – people have an innate sense of storytelling. Doesn’t mean what the average person tells is good, just that roleplayers generally know how to work with the material they’re provided and that’s what makes ScreenPlay a lot of fun.
By launch date, it will be approximately three years since this journey began. As mentioned before, ScreenPlay began with High Plains Samurai and has been a long series of numerous rewrites, playtests, playstorms and weekends of head bashing to figure out the best approach to make this game work the way I always intended. Unlike Killshot, much of this game was never locked down except for three key aspects: the resolution mechanic had to be quick and simple, there would be an effect for rolling even or odd numbers, and players would have narrative control over their characters. Pulling that off was harder than it seemed.
Probably the biggest issue we tackled during the back-and-forth between concepts and rules was complications. The game allows players to create freeform penalties, limitations, damage, and more based on the success of their descriptions, but it wasn’t working as I wanted during the early stages of the game. It wasn’t until I was sitting in the delivery room with my wife passed out from the epidural when it suddenly hit me: players shouldn’t roll to succeed when they’re in control of their story. They should roll to complicate matters for other characters or when the Director actively tries to complicate matters for them. Once that eureka moment hit, everything else fell into place.
Late last year, we ran a very successful and beneficial public playtest with ScreenPlay: The Rehearsal Edition to ensure what was happening at our table occurred with others and gauge potential pubic reaction. I can explain both with this one result – playtesters gave it an average score of 4.6 out of 5. Through that playtesting, the game’s focus shifted from solely action based to a universal storytelling game for dramas, mysteries, horror, family-friendly, or hardcore R-rated games. And here we are today.