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Musings of a Would-Be Game Designer

In the Beginning

by Mike Martinez
Sep 09,2003


Musings of a Would-Be Game Designer

By Mike Martinez

In the Beginning

"I could do that."

How many times have you picked up a game book, read it through, and said just that when you were done? Heck, you've written your own scenarios and campaigns, inflicted them on our gaming groups, and probably even adapted your favorite TV show or movie - Highlander seems to be a perennial favorite - to your favorite gaming system, then argued vociferously online about whose adaptation was better.

You could write a game, right? A real one, one that people would buy?

Let's put aside the technical aspects that arise from that question, such as writing, editing, art, layout, publishing and marketing, just to name a few. Instead, chew on this: do you have an idea for a game that's really going to sell? The history of role-playing games is littered with the tattered pages of ideas, good and bad, that went nowhere because they just weren't marketable. Another question to ask yourself: are you good enough, in the end, to make your idea soar? Your game could be up there on shelves, physical or virtual, with stuff by Monte Cook, Justin Achilli, Bruce Baugh, Matthew Sprange and many other outstanding writers. How will you compare?

You think you got what it takes, champ?

Of course, I think about these last questions now, months after I've already started writing my game. I wonder what combination of hubris and mild psychosis led me to believe this would really work. But then I remember the moment when the idea hit me, and I happily go back to writing my setting, designing my rules or working with my compatriots on getting my game ready for its planned December release on RPGnow.

When the RPG.net folk recently posted that they could use more columnists, I though my experiences with writing a game might be useful. So many people on the Forums have tried it, or want to try it, and perhaps my experience could provide insight, or at least help others avoid the miscues that I've already made, as well as those I've avoided with the help of others from this very site. Do I get to shill for my upcoming game? Well...yeah. But I promise I will try to keep it relevant and at least not look like I'm shilling. Much.

The Idea

Let's start with the idea, the one that keeps me going whenever I feel like my efforts are a monumental folly. The power of the idea - it's intoxicating, especially when it hits you the way good ideas do. It springs out of the corner of your mind, assembling bits and pieces of your experience in odd and unique ways, then comes at you from the shadows, pummeling you with revelation, with an epiphany.

I'm 31 years old, and I've been a professional journalist for over 10 years. In that time, I've had one personal and two professional epiphanies, if you will. The personal one came within a week after meeting my wife for the first time, and you can guess what happened after that. The other two were for books on my coverage specialty, technology. One was published last year, and the second is languishing at the agent's office, the victim of a recession in which nobody wants to read about high-tech.

That recession was indirectly responsible for my fourth Big Idea(tm), since I had been laid off from my magazine in February and had spent much of March looking for jobs online at the local Starbucks. Naturally, unemployment gives one time to think, sometimes too much time. But honestly, after busting ass for two years for the mag, it was kind of nice to relax on the patio with a coffee and Wi-Fi access. And it was on the patio at Starbucks where it hit me.

I had an image of a ship in space. I'm pretty sure it came from the Treasure Planet posters that had just gone up a few doors down at Blockbuster. A few nights before, I had seen one of A&E's Horatio Hornblower movies on DVD, too. And I remembered something Gene Roddenberry said - I think it was Gene - when he described Star Trek as "Horatio Hornblower in space."

Why not put Hornblower in space - literally? Wait, is this dumb? Well, how did he get there? Well...he sailed off the edge of Earth, which would have to be...flat. Which Columbus discovered when he tried to sail for China in 1492. And instead he ended up on the Moon...

I wrote nearly ten pages of material that afternoon. "A unique sci-fi/fantasy setting" was how I first described it - as a journalist, I'm used to summing up ideas in headlines. Then it became "space fantasy set in the historic Age of Sail." Closer. But it lacked the oomph of the images in my head - a British warship trading cannon fire with the French over Jupiter, 18th century explorers taking on the steamy jungles of Venus and their strange reptilian denizens, a lost civilization on Mars and, most vividly, advanced alien cities perched on the rings of Saturn.

It would have adventure and excitement on an epic scale, dark mysteries that change the course of nations and planets, strange new worlds and aliens. And pirates! My God, the pirates, sailing along the Spanish Main - no, wait - hiding among the asteroids of the Rocky Main! Lying in wait for merchantmen making the Jupiter-Mars run....yeah. Cannons firing, cutlasses gleaming in the starlight, brave Royal Navy officers battling dread corsairs...

I wrote the word "Spacebuckler" at the top of the document I had just finished. Slightly cheesy? Maybe, but it combined the swashbuckling adventure I had in mind with the spacefaring aspect of the setting. So, Spacebuckler it was. Six months later, the name has stuck. Thankfully, the URL was readily available.

I never questioned whether this idea would be anything but a role-playing game, even though my serious playing days were years behind me. I really didn't have characters in mind yet, but I had an intense setting with worlds to explore, the clash of empires and new civilizations both ancient and advanced.

I left Starbucks with a spring in my step. It turned out to be a good day for another reason, too - I'm now working in a full-time job I had applied for that very day, and it pays better than my old gig. But at the time, all I could think about was soaring through the Void in command of a ship of the line, battling pirates over Jupiter and making port on the rings of Saturn.

Does your idea capture your imagination? I suppose that's the lesson this first column should impart. I don't know if you'll get a Eureka moment, or whether your idea will be methodically plotted out from the moment you say, "I want to write a role-playing game" (though I have my doubts about the latter method). But no matter how you come up with it, or whether it ultimately sells, the idea itself should get your juices flowing, keep you up at night and make you want to sit down for hours on end to write.

Your idea shouldn't stop, either. Good ideas spawn other ideas. Your idea should grow and expand, adapt and evolve, and bring about new angles and notions that you hadn't considered before. One thing leads to another. There's a flow to your thinking that's hard to explain, but like falling in love, you'll know it when you're in it.

Finally, even though your idea is constantly sprouting new branches and growing complex roots, you should still be able to explain it in a few sentences. "Spacebuckler is a space fantasy game set in the historic Age of Sail. The empires of Earth have colonized the Solar System by sailing the solar trade winds, and have encountered both alien monsters and new civilizations in their quests for knowledge and power." That's the poorly constructed paragraph I wrote after the first day, and I still had a hundred threads to follow up on in my brain. Editing could come a bit later. If you can't tell anybody what your game is about in 20 seconds or less, no matter how hard you try, perhaps it's time to streamline the idea a bit. It's an exercise I recommend for any writer, no matter what you're writing.

So there you have it. I don't know if my idea will ultimately sell. I don't know if I'm a good enough writer to go up against the best in the biz. Honestly, there are days where the pressure of a full-time job and the need for a happy home life squeeze Spacebuckler out entirely. But I believe in my idea, I work hard at it, and the new angles and ideas keep coming. And that goes a long way.

It was when I e-mailed my idea to one of my best friends that things really came together, but that's a story for the next column.

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What do you think?

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