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Fiddly Bits: Game Archaeology

Fiddly 101: In the Beginning....

Larry D. Hols
June 21, 2001  
The beginning of the process of game design requires a bit of thought. It is possible to simply begin assembling mechanics willy-nilly and hash out a game in that fashion, but the result will most likely be lacking in some dimension or another, found wanting in some measure when finished. Time spent at the outset planning how the game pieces will fit together and to what end is much the same as drawing blueprints for constructing a building.

The plan for the game, however, need not be some ultra-detailed affair, complete with an eight page working outline. The plan need only be an understanding of exactly what it is one wishes to have the game provide and the preferred fashion in which to attain that goal. A single page of notes can guide the development in much the same fashion as a multi-page outline. (Note: I've used both methods and usually make voluminous notes.)

What appear to be obvious matters for planning, however, may not be the best matters with which to begin. The matter of genre, for example, is not of major concern at the outset of actual mechanical design, even though it is one of the first concerns in actual play and must be treated within the design; the existence of generic and universal rules sets show this to be so. Other matters, such as the details of tracking wounds and the timing of combat also are not essential at this stage. The most fundamental questions of design are far more basic and important. The first of these questions in what type of characters will appear in the game.

Legends, Heroes, and Just Plain Folks

Who are the people at the eye of the storm? The events of play focus on the player characters of the game, so it is essential to have an understanding of what sort of capabilities those characters will have. PCs can be of every stripe, but the sensibilities of the game--and this helps shape the sub-genre later--are built to support specific levels of capability.

A game could focus on "just plain folks." JPF are those heroes who are normal except for being forced into adventuring or called into it because of a restless nature. A traveling gambler in the wild west serves as a perfect example. He travels from town to town playing cards and leaving before the locals get upset at him winning too much. He possesses those skills that a normal person would, to the degree that a normal person would, in the circumstances of his lifestyle. He's obviously skilled at gambling, and then may have some proficiency with a sidearm, has knowledge of saloon culture, and so on. He's not going to be very good at cutting calves from a herd for branding, but that's okay--he's just plain folks and expected to be bad at a lot of different things.

A game could concentrate on "Heroes." Heroes are those folks who have some ability that raises them to a position of notoriety, whether fame or infamy, and sizes them just a little larger than life. A famed lawman in the wild west could be known throughout three states and two territories as being fast with his revolver, a crack shot with his rifle, able to ride three days through the desert, able to ambush a gang horse thieves single-handedly, and show up at the ice cream social smelling like rose water and causing the ladies to swoon. When trouble arrives--via horseback, stagecoach, or raliroad--normal folks look to the Heroes and the Heroes look to root out the trouble.

A game could celebrate "Lejends." (Hint: That was a plug!) These folks are head-and-shoulders above everybody else around them, famed far and wide, and capable of deeds that everybody else can only hope to accomplish in dreams. Lejends can lift bulls and break boulders bare-handed. Lejends can lasso twisters, re-route rivers, and drive a herd 300 miles to market single-handedly.

These descriptions obviously mark a spectrum along which a game's approach could fall. A design could have JPF who happen to possess more skills than normal folks, but are unusual only in that regard. Heroes could be simply normal folks who have endured highly rigorous and specialized training that provides them with far greater capabilities than normal folks. Lejnds, of course, could be those who save the Duke from the machinations of the Bandit King or those who turn the tide in a cataclysmic battle with hordes of demons from the nether dimensions.

The Example Systems

The first game, which is called _Winken_ for now, is going to be about Lejends. The characters will begin play larger-than-life, and will only grow larger through play. Now, the intent is not to create a game that would have characters taking out Norse deities two of three falls, but a game that simply involves lots of over-the-top ability and power. This means that character advancement must be carefully measured to keep the characters within the intended parameters.

The second game, called _Blinken_, is going to be about those folks somewhere between JPF and Heroes. The intent is to have characters that begin as JPF and develop into Heroes of some capability. The focus is going to be primarily on the experiences in getting there, and not in gaining a bevy of awesome powers and gizmos.

The third game, code-named _Nod_ (saw that coming, eh?), is going to concentrate on Heroes. The characters will begin as out-of-the-ordinary folks and develop a broader selection of capabilities and greater ability in their primary areas. Character development will be tricky here, as the intent isn't to build the Heroes into Lejends, but to simply make better Heroes.

(Note: For those not catching the plug reference--the _Lejendary Adventure Role Playing System_(tm) by Gary Gygax, published by Hekaforge Productions. I worked on it. Buy it at fine gaming stores everywhere.)

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What do you think?

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All Fiddly Bits columns by Larry D. Hols

  • FID 223: Analysis of die-roll methods by Torben Mogensen, 18jun02
  • Another Change February 28, 2002
  • Fiddly 101: 101 Character Classes November 28, 2001
  • Fiddly 101: Character Classes, Part Two: The Nuts and Bolts September 20, 2001
  • Fiddly 101: Character Classes August 23, 2001
  • In the Beginning... June 21, 2001
  • New Directions May 18, 2001
  • In Defense of Heroism April 25, 2000
  • A Philosophy of Realism December 30, 1999
  • A Philosophy of Fightin' Words November 9, 1999
  • The Philosophical Question May 18, 1999
  • Whittlin' Fiddly February 23, 1999
  • Fiddly to the Rescue, Part Two January 19, 1999
  • Fiddly to the Rescue December 15, 1998
  • Old-Fashioned Fiddly November 17, 1998
  • You Don't Know Fiddly September 22, 1998

    Other columns at RPGnet

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