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Musings of a Would-Be Game Designer

Think Big...Think Game Line

by Mike Martinez
Jan 14,2004


Musings of a Would-Be Game Designer

By Mike Martinez

Think Big...Think Game Line

I am a sore, sick dog as I sit and write this, so if it doesn't make a heap of sense, bear with me. As I mentioned a month ago, I got a better day job that required us to move. So...here I am, surrounded by boxes, in our new place in Edgewater, N.J. Naturally, we chose the most frigid day of the year to move, which of course means I now have a frighteningly potent cold. Like I said, bear with me.

This time around, I want to go beyond the individual game that you may be designing. A good role-playing game should have a strong structure, but one that's open-ended to encourage creativity. The other reason, however, you should have those two elements is so that you can produce supplements.

Is your game worthy of being a game line? I can't answer that for you. But I can help you determine whether or not it has the potential, based on my experiences developing my own game.

The Benefits of Structure

Take a look at the most popular role-playing games around. Whether they're number-crunching battle-fests like Dungeons & Dragons or angsty, character-driven talkers like Vampire: The Masquerade, they have a similar structure.

No, I'm not talking about dice, or theme-and-mood or whatever. I'm talking about some of the most basic concepts in role-playing. These games - and nearly every game out there - have character options. Classes, clans, tribes, archetypes, careers, whatever you want to call them. These are the things that people have in mind when they read a game and say, "I want to be a...."

Some games have steadfastly refused to force characters into a given mold - take Call of Cthulhu, for example, or the old RuneQuest. In those games, you just created a person, and then chose "career paths" or whatnot during the course of play. It's a much more organic way of developing player characters, I'll grant you, but not very conducive to marketing supplements.

Let's go back to D&D and Vampire, two of the biggest games around. Of course, D&D has classes. And Wizards of the Coast has smartly put out sourcebooks for many of those classes, such as Sword and Fist and Song and Silence. (Not to mention the dozens of class-based d20 System supplements out there from other publishers.) And then there are race books, magic supplements, etc.

Of course, fans of White Wolf's games scoff at such silliness as class...then go and choose from among 13 clans...or 13 tribes, nine traditions (and five technocratic conventions), and a variety of guilds, kiths, dharmas, houses, factions, creeds and amenti. And Vampire, Werewolf and Mage had not one, but two splatbooks for each clan, tribe and tradition - first/second edition and the revised edition. Wow. Hats off to the marketing folks

The point to all this is that RPG systems are designed to help players flesh out their characters through pre-set stereotypes, whether they be classes, clans, careers or karmic duties. Each of these options, as presented in your average core book, takes up a few pages. Quite naturally, players love more information on their particular character...it helps them develop their characters into well-rounded personalities as the player explores how their individual PC is different or similar to their average colleagues.

And, thus, these are great opportunities for supplements. In Spacebuckler, the game I'm developing, I have nine basic character classes and a number of associated prestige classes. Now, some of my classes are somewhat similar - the Doctor class uses alchemical preparations much like the Alchemist class, while Soldiers and Sailors are definitely the combat classes. So we'll be putting out five supplements for our game based on class - Alchemist/Doctor, Soldier/Sailor, Explorer/Trader, Aristocrat/Rogue (I like the pairing there), and a stand-alone Clergyman book. Of course, each of these books will have a ton of setting information, prestige classes and other interesting tidbits to make them worthwhile to our coming legions of fans.

As you look at your game, if you can see the distinctions that the players may make in choosing characters - if you've given them strong archetypal options - then you have the makings for a game line based on class supplements alone.

Games Cannot Live on Splatbooks Alone

Ah...but a good game line needs more than player-centric splatbooks, especially if you have a very strong, unique setting. Spacebuckler, set in a spacefaring 1780s Age of Sail, certainly has some unique elements in its geocentric Solar System. Space travel and exploration are a large part of the game, and even though the bulk of our core game book will be setting-related, there's still a ton to do.

Of course, you need to keep your settings open-ended - gamemasters are a crafty lot, and the idea behind your setting is to get their juices flowing to come up with adventures and setting ideas of their own. But even with that said, exploring your setting is another great way to build your game line.

Our setting-specific supplement ideas are based on the Solar System in the game, with each major planet getting a book of its own. Given that the Earth in our game is quite similar to the Earth of the 1780s, we'll use the "Earth book" to discuss matters of empire and society. Other books will lend themselves to other ideas - the Venusian primitives, in particular, will be rich for exposition, as will the advance Xan and their cities on the rings of Saturn.

Just as each major player choice can lead to a supplement, each major element in your setting can also be "commoditized" into a supplement as well. And that doesn't even include individual adventures or campaigns that you can sell - though, from what I've heard, the day of the stand-along "module" is waning fast. Supplements should be toolkits that can be referenced time and again, not one-shots that are used and tossed aside, even if they are based on specific portions of your setting - just look at Silver Marches or Unapproachable East for the Forgotten Realms setting by WotC. These books go into great detail, yes, but they also serve as launching points for new adventures that the DM may not have thought of before.

People want to see a lot of ideas in their supplements - fuel for the players' and GMs' imagination. They should open far more doors than they close, too. It turns out that the Xan civilization, for example, isn't as monolithic as Earthmen had once believed (or as described in the main Spacebuckler setting book. There are political rebels, artistic intellectuals, even religious and philosophical malcontents. One door shut, a dozen open.

So why are supplements so important? Maybe you just want to publish the core game and be done with it. Hey, it's your game. But I've got my first three supplements in the writing stages already, and Spacebuckler isn't coming out until Spring. Why do all that work? Well, as we explained above, supplements add value to your game. They bring new ideas and concepts to the table, and give players and GMs additional hooks on which to hang their own thoughts and plans.

They also show you're serious as a game publisher. If you do a one-shot game, people will decide whether or not to buy it on the merits of what they've seen and heard about it. Supplements are great in that they may capture the interest of a gamer for reasons completely unrelated to your core game. Spacebuckler's Alchemy supplement won't just be about 18th century puffers. Indeed, we've sworn to make it the last word on Alchemy for the entire d20 System. Someone buys it, adapts it to D&D or another d20 game, then realizes that, hey, maybe we should give this Spacebuckler thing a shot.

Plus, let's face it. People look at games that are supported. If they see three or four supplements on the shelf, they're likely to pick up the main book and give it a read. They know that the game will be supported with future work.

And, of course, supplements bring in more money. What game publisher is going to turn that down? Supplements won't bring in a ton of green, to be sure, but they do OK sales-wise, and they do drive sales of your core game book in some small way....not a lot, but enough for you to notice. And supplements keep your fan base happy.

That's about it for now. I have unpacking to do! Perhaps the next column will be on how one moves to a new city, starts a new job and continues to develop a game book....hopefully, I'll have an answer in a few weeks, because right now, I have no clue.

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What do you think?

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