Friday, October 18, 2013

Design Journal #2: Brainstorming


A few weeks ago I wrote up my DesignDiary #1.  Today, I’m continuing this saga.  But before I get to today’s issue: a rabbit chaser.  Every designer has to deal with personal distractions and tragedy along the road to publication.  Who knows how many thousands of would-be designers have had to abandon their games due to addiction, loss, disease, or what-have-you.  I feel the pain of those designers and my life is an exemplar of that struggle.  So hopefully, this design series will serve not only to instruct nascent game-makers in the art of design and publishing but also instruct them on the art of dealing with real-life barriers that come up during the process.  More on that later, tho.  On to brainstorming.

I want to stress to you just how important to the design process letting your mind generate ideas and at the same time, writing those ideas down are.  The human mind, especially mine, is weak.  I can’t remember every mechanic or piece of trivia I come up with when imagining how my game will work.  Once I have envisioned play, I begin the process of brainstorming.  Everyone has their own method for doing this.  My post today is descriptive not prescriptive, but if you like my methodology, feel free to employ it in part or in whole :)

Back in the olden days (1998-2001) I kept stacks of composition notebooks around me all the time.  Each notebook would be dedicated to a different topic: Chargen, Resolution System, Rewards, Magic, Setting, etc. etc. etc.  After my first game was published in 2002, I switched to computers.

Now, I keep a single file with all my notes.  I have a specific system that I use, and I’ve mentioned it before.  My notes are kept in a stream of consciousness outline.  I let the inspiration flow, and I type it out as it comes.  Sometimes, I still jot things down on random scraps of paper when a computer isn’t handy, but it all goes into my file in the order it came to me.  As an example, here is the first half-page or so of my design notes for this game: NOTES EXCERPT

I have to confess one thing.  The “Dungeons” label for the game came after the entry on Moldvay and Keep on the Borderlands.  It wasn’t until then, I had even the faintest idea what I wanted from this thing.  In a future post, I’ll explain how I arrived at that decision.

Anyway, I find that keeping my notes this way lets me see where I made decisions in the design process and why I made those decisions.  Sometimes, when you get half-way or even 2/3 of the way through a text, you forget why you made a certain rule.  You look at something and go, “What the…Why’d I do this?”  Keeping my notes in a stream of consciousness, helps me understand my game’s purpose SO much better.

Also, it helps me organize my text.  I have an outline ready to go that will only need a small amount of tweaking before I dive right into the writing process.  I found that it makes writing my games more efficient.  This isn’t fool-proof, though.  As you can see, those notes are quite busy in some places.  Sometimes I’ll copy and paste a section of my notes into its own document just to separate it from the clutter as I’m writing.

The entire document is well over 20 pages now, but not everything will make it in.  Stuff I’m not using stays in the notes, but I might make it “strikethrough” or highlight it in a different color so I know not to include it in my text.   

Anyhow, that will just about do it for my entry today.  Brainstorming is the second step I take after envisioning play.  I have kind of a wacky system for doing.  Yours could be even wackier.  If this is your first time writing a game, I recommend putting all your ideas down somewhere.  Whether it’s on paper, on the net, or in a file: write them down!  If you don’t, I promise you’ll forget.



Thursday, October 10, 2013

What is an 'Endgame' ?


Today I’m going to discuss a design technique that has become more and more popular in RPGs over the last ten years.  It is the “Endgame.”  An endgame is a moment where play permanently stops for one or more characters in a campaign.  This means that once certain conditions are met, that character’s story is done.

The idea of an endgame isn’t new.  It’s been around for as long as writing “retired” at the top of a character record sheet has been conceived.  However, the idea has been developed more and more over the last decade.  As a result, several ways to treat an endgame have emerged.

The first way to address the endgame mechanic is to assume that there is no necessary endgame.  Games like D&D, Ars Magica, Vampire, and Sorcerer fit this category.  They assume that play, at least in theory, could go on indefinitely.  Players decide on their own when they are done with their characters and often make up some grand scene to say goodbye. 

The second way is to have a soft endgame.   Dogs in theVineyard and Prime Time Adventures have what I call “soft” endgames.  For dogs, it is the salvation of a town.  The characters discover the sin, find the perpetrator, and punish him or her.  In PTA, it’s the end of a season or story-arc.  If the players want, that can be the end of play OR they have the option to continue the same characters in a new town or new season. 

Some games have triggered endgames.  I think The Shadow ofYesterday and Dungeon World are prime examples.  In TSoY, when one character’s ability reaches a certain value (6 IIRC), the character “transcends.”  This means he or she has become so powerful that the character is taken out of the world in order to maintain balance.  In Dungeon World, it’s getting to level 10.  Both of these are mostly voluntary by the players.  In TSoY, reaching a 6 in an ability is never inevitable.  It’s easy to avoid.  In DW, there’s a way to avoid hitting level ten if you really want.  So the character’s story only ends if the players want to.  Of course, character death in more traditional games is another example of triggered engames.  Triggered endgames are often linked to individual characters and may not affect the entire party or the story.

Finally, there are games with hard endgames.  My Life with Master and my own Cutthroat are exemplars of this.  MLwM ends with either the death of the Master or the death of the Minion (or both).  All play drives towards that eventuality.  There’s no escaping it.  Likewise, all play in Cutthroat drives toward one biker dominating all the other bikers in the gang.  It is inescapable.  When the Master dies or when one biker dominates all the others, the game ends.  Period.

So what is the use of an endgame?

To begin, endgames can provide a focus for play.  They give the players something to drive towards and the characters something to achieve.  It helps everyone know what is happening during the three timescales of play.  The endgame keeps everyone on the same page and satisfies the expectations all the players have.

Additionally, endgames can limit the amount of time people play the RPG.  Take my Game Chef 2012 submission for example.  The Coyote Lode was meant to be a one-shot, one-session RPG.  Thus, I gave it explicit endgame mechanics (every room in the mine eventually floods).  As the designer, my intention for play was not indefinite.  It was well defined.  I think there is plenty of design space in one-shots and might cover that topic in a more in-depth way in another aricle.

Last, endgames provide a social reward.  When a player or a group of players hits the endgame successfully (like killing the Master in MLwM), there is a payoff of social esteem.  For a lot of players, social esteem is why they play, and an endgame will greatly appeal to them.

There are ways to further break down these endgames.  For instance, you could break them down by character, session, adventure, or campaign.  A character’s endgame could be when he loses all his hit points in D&D or loses all his humanity points and becomes the GM’s character in Sorcerer.  A session’s endgame could be tracked by some expendable currency or resource, or it could be timed.  For an adventure’s endgame, it could be solving a crime in InSpectres.  And as I mentioned earlier, My Life with Master is an excellent example of a campaign’s endgame.

Do all games need an endgame?

Nope.  In fact, many do not.  But is another tool in the RPG designer’s toolbox that you can use.  As you create your game, regardless of the genre or creative agenda you want to support, consider whether an endgame might be right for your design.  Sometimes it will be; sometimes it won’t.  But it’s always good to at least consider how it might help focus your game or provide a payoff for the players at the end.