With a setting it usually starts with some sort of inspiration or a desire to play in an environment. So, with Tales of Gaea it was Tolkien, Earth Sea, and general fantasy. With Shades of Earth it was Indiana Jones and the 1930s in general but also my childhood games of Chill and CoC. Nebuleon was about any sci-fi setting/story you can imagine with a lot of Star Frontiers and to a lesser extent Traveler. Roma was mostly about my love of the Roman history. Supers Inc was all about what I think is cool about the super’s genre mixed with a rejection of over the top super heroes. Squirrel Attack! is my love of olde tyme fairy tales mixed with my own brand of weird free association.
So, that is my motivation but how does it get formed? Well, moving from the initial idea, the very first question I ask myself is “What do the characters do in the setting?”. If the answer is “I don’t know” then the idea gets catapulted off the bridge. If the answer (or better yet several answers) leap to mind then I start documenting them. I then move into an outlining phase building around the “What do the characters do” question and building on it. This allows me to build a setting with little extraneous fluff. However, I usually keep a bible on a setting allowing me to track things like what type of pottery does a race use and what does their language sound like.
The next part is fleshing out the setting. Some things, necessarily, are not about what the characters do in the setting so much as who they are. Races and culture are very important to me, both as a player, GM and designer. For this, I usually look to what would interest and inform the player about who their character is and the world that they move through.
Finally, I add points of interest in the world, people of interest, major foes and allies and the various dressing elements. These are most likely in mind and forming as I do the other parts but in this phase I am able to actualize them in a format that the reader can relate to.
In the end, I usually have 100-150 more pages than the final book will be. The editors cut it down to size despite my best efforts to be succinct and I imagine that is how it will always turn out.
Let’s try and explain the bizarre process i use to design games. I have not had much luck int he past but maybe it will work out here.
For me, when I look at a game system, I see elements. For that matter, I can say the same about the setting as well. These “elements” are the base recognizable components in a system. This may be a sub-system Armor Ablation or a basic concept like Hit Points. These elements then have certain appeal and influence on the “Flavor” of the system. The flavor is not as important as the preferences that individual elements provide for players preference and player expectation. These elements inform those expectations and preferences.
So, some examples. When someone approaches Iridium, they will see the Armor Ablation element. This provides a specific preference. It would fall into the tactical and the need to know where you are hit. There are no small buzzwords for these preferences and really, most are pretty obvious when you think about them. However, they may also provide some that are difficult to see such as a desire to produce historic armors or custom armors. On the expectation side, you have the positive (tactical) and the negative (complex).
When applying them to design, elements allow the crafting not only of system but of the feel of a system. If you apply a great deal of tactical expectations and mixed with softer preferences, you need to watch the expectation of the system. For instance, with Iridium, you have a lot of “flexibility” preferences (custom skills, armors, weapons, monsters, character classes) and in general the expectation of the system is tactical and old school. I have some issues with the “old school” expectation but i have found that expectation elements are not always within the control of the designer. Players will bring preformed expectations and apply them to your elements. There is little to be done for that as much of it is on the player. Note, the designer can mitigate this to some extent by not misleading with the element’s name. For instance, calling an element Hit Points then systemically defining it as a means to describe how birds fly.
Elements are my way of breaking down a system into terms that speak to what people like about a game on a more meaningful level than “it’s cool!”. So, far, it has worked pretty well.
This is a concern for any small business. In the RPG business it can cost anywhere from $400 to several thousand (small business, with larger publishers you end up int he 100Ks). For instance, we are looking at the squirrel dice game. Why? Because dice games are evergreen if they are successful. They supply a steady stream of cash and can build as time goes on. RPGs tend (not always) to go theo other way and the returns fade as time goes on. The reason is that dice games are viral in that if you play with a guy, you want your own set. Sure, they do not wear out but you always have new people exposed (remember, we are are talking successful game). With RPGs, you often get one GM buying the book and sharing with the whole group. So, Sales show a spike but then bottom out quickly.
Opening new revenue streams are inportant and take a critical eye. I would suggest no one just decide to go into a new market but instead talk to the people already there, the people who will be selling your product and the people who will be buying it. Then, once you have some information begin reseach on the feasibility of the product. How much does packaging cost? Shipping tot he distributor or off your own site? Manufacturing costs? And how the branding will fit into your other lines. There are many factors to consider efore taking the plunge.
I have often been told that my humor is too dark. I laugh at inappropriate times in movies, find stories that are supposed to be horrifying amusing and generally do not enjoy the “horror” genre because of this. Part of it has to do with night terrors (anyone who suffers from this knows what I mean) and that makes the stuff folks traditionally think of as horror seem kind of tame by comparison. However, it goes deeper than that into the genre of humor. What I find “funny” other folks generally find a bit disturbing. Not “ick” disturbing, but more “that seems like it should be in horror” disturbing. Perhaps odd is a better word.
This brings me to writing ASMBE and the difficulties I face here. Now, for me, I usually write the SA! books by kind of letting myself go to that crazy place of fantasy, sort of letting my mind wander and come up with some weird but not dark humor. With ASMBE I find myself sometimes wandering too far afield into the dark and forgetting the humor part. It will be interesting to see if I can strike a balance.
I was in a B&N recently and as part of a general “Local Author’s” thing I was demoing Squirrel Attack! At first I had the usual polite “What is this?” kind of crowd but then it turned into a lot of “I never knew DND could be like this!”. Now, I am not saying they were blown away by the system so much as the setting. I am starting to think the only people who get blown away by setting are the die hard gamers. Most folks are much more engaged at the setting level. Perhaps because of the ease of understanding it or because it is much more interesting to them than an endless list of rules and exceptions (which is what sever “Moms” confided in me the rules of any game they played seemed like). Now, don’t get me wrong, it is not a case of system can be as complex or simple as you like, but more one of the average joe is going to look at it and it wont matter if it is Iridium, True20 or DND. They just want it to work and be relatively simple to learn. I think that gets glossed over a bit too much in RPGer circles.
So, I am typing along on ASMBE and I hear the neighbor mowing his lawn. Normally nothing of concern and I clickety clack along as I muse ont he finer points of a squirrel with mistaken identity of a lab rat. Lo and behold, I hear the sound of a lawn mower grinding and chewing on something decidedly not flora related, nay, dare I say decidedly metallic. I go to investigate as his mower has gone quite outside the garden window of my office. Sure enough, there he stands before a shredded cable. A cable which should have been buried over three years ago.
Enter the Technician
Sure, I think, we have business class and should recieve priority. Especially so since it is a simple patch. Enter the call at 7pm on a Friday and the dispatcher says “Sure! Between 10 AM and 1 pm tomorrow”. O.k. Never one to leave a bad thing alone, Linda and I spring into action. We splice, we tape, we strip the wire…to no avail. Despite our best efforts we will need to wait for the tech on the marrow.
He calls at 9:30 to say he will be hear at 10:30. We get ready as they may need to string an entire new cable. 10:30…11:30…12:30…1:30….O.k. here they missed the window so we call. “Oh,” says the dispatcher, “I cannot contact the tech. He is not answering his phone or pager. We will get the tech supervisor out there to see wha is going on.” We thank her and wait for the promised call in 5-10 minutes…and wait. An hour later we call back. Different person, same story. We wait again for the promised call….we bgin calling every 1/2 hour.
Finally, the tech shows up at 7 pm and runs a splice. It takes 10 minutes. This is no exaggeration. He could have done this on the way to work this morning he jokes…