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Musings of a Would-Be Game Designer

Concept Versus Design

by Mike Martinez
Oct 21,2003


Musings of a Would-Be Game Designer

By Mike Martinez

Concept Versus Design

Writing a game is more than simply having a Great Idea. Sure, the Great Idea is key. As with any consumer product, you have to show your readers something different, something they haven't seen or considered before. Ideally, you want to really wow them, or at least give them something useful.

But if they can't wrap their heads around the Idea, then, well...they've wasted their money on something they don't understand or can't use. And once word gets out, your game won't sell.

To me, that's been the biggest hurdle in developing Spacebuckler into a game. The Idea hit me like a thunderbolt, like all Great Ideas should. But once I delved into the Idea and found it to be a good one, I was faced with making it accessible to anyone who would buy the game.

As you transition from concept to design, you have to keep the reader in mind at all times. The key to making your idea accessible is organization. Not only does your concept need organization, but your eventual game book needs it as well. So we'll do two things in this column - organize your idea, and organize your eventual book.

Developing the Idea

There's a huge difference between developing your idea and writing your book. Indeed, you'll probably write a book's worth of material on your idea before you actually start writing the book itself. My initial idea for Spacebuckler -- a space fantasy in an alternate Solar System during the historic Age of Sail - needed a great deal of development before I felt comfortable enough to try to write it as a book.

If you're writing a campaign setting, whether it's a variation on the fantasy or sci-fi RPG theme or if it's wildly different like Spacebuckler, you're going to need to map out your setting. You'll need to figure out the geography, history and social structure of your setting. You'll need to figure out what kind of "kewl powerz" exist in your setting, if any, and how they might affect the history and sociology of your setting. Basically, you need to create a world.

I remember reading interviews with J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame, and coming away very much impressed with how she's developed her world well beyond what we've seen in the novels thus far. She's written volumes of material that might never see the light of day, all in the name of continuity. There are reasons for Lord Voldemort's actions, and reasons why Dumbledore does what he does as well. And you can see how this chess match between these two wizards has unfolded through the novels - in reading Book 5, some things in the past books have made more sense to me.

That's the kind of research and continuity that needs to occur when you design a role-playing game. I've mapped out some 300 years of history in Spacebuckler, from the discovery of Void-Sailing and the first Moon landing in 1493 through the battle for Ganymedean independence in 1780 and beyond to the French Revolution and Napoleon's self-crowning as Solar Emperor. History is different in this alternate Solar System because of the existence of alien beings, planetary exploration and trade, the presence of alchemy as a very real and powerful mystical science, and the effect of holy miracles on everyday life. And it's been up to me to try to detail these differences and make sense of them.

Setting design is hard, and requires a great deal of thought. You need to look not only at geography and religion, but also politics, magic, social structures, science, technology...the list goes on. There have to be reasons for why things happen. When you come up with a great idea for a setting element, the first thing you need to ask yourself is, "Why would this be?"

The same goes for "toolkit" books, new game mechanics (usually for d20) where the crunchy bits are the selling point. I've seen a lot of d20 toolkit books and have often found myself wondering why some of them even exist? Why would this mechanic work? What does this particular class, race or mechanic give players that they didn't have before? Would this prestige class, for example, add to the depth of someone's setting, or is it just an excuse for players to load up on kewl powerz and engage in new heights of twinkery?

When fleshing out your concept, each key element has to answer the "why" question. The answers need not make sense in the "real" world, but they have to follow a certain logic within the framework of your setting or toolkit. Those answers don't necessarily have to be immediately evident in the text, but they have to be there regardless, in case you need them as you begin writing.

Organizing Your Thoughts

Once you have your ideas all mapped out and can answer the "why" question for each element, then it's time to write the book, right? Well...almost. No author worthy of the title sits down at the computer and starts typing page one. So many first-time authors make the mistake of not outlining their projects and end up being one-time authors because of it.

Take a look at the game books on your shelf, specifically at the table of contents. I've just pulled Vampire: The Masquerade off my shelf. You've got setting first, then game mechanics, then advice for both players and gamemasters. Nice and neat. You get into the setting, then figure out where your character might fit in, then get some ideas on how the game would flow within the setting.

How about the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting? Crunchy bits first, then geography, then religion, then history, and finally adventures. Not necessarily the way I would have done it, but not bad. Once you get used to it, you can find what you need pretty easily.

Remember, when your reader opens your book, you're educating them, taking them on a journey into your Idea. They need to know what they're getting into, and they need to be able to tackle things logically.

For Spacebuckler, given that the setting is really the biggest selling point, that's the first part of our outline. We're looking at history, then current affairs and social structure, and ending with a tour of the known Solar System. After that, we're going with characters - classes, skills and feats, alchemy and miracles. And in the third part, we detail combat and other systems, our creature collection and finally, gamemaster-only information which not only gives GMs advice on the kinds of adventures they can create, but also some inklings of our overall metaplot - where we envision the Solar System going over the next 10+ years of game time.

I could have put the crunchy bits first, like many d20 System books, but without discussing the nature of miracles in the setting, the Clergyman class would not have made much sense, for example. The Sailor class would have seemed rather dumb without knowing the critical role Sailors play in the setting.

Once you have general layout ideas, then it's time to do an outline. Yes, just like they showed you in junior high. Tedious, boring and at times, frustrating, outlines are nevertheless critical. As you create your outline, you'll discover all sorts of things about your game. You'll figure out that you need to introduce concepts earlier in your book, or find out that two of your concepts are incompatible. You'll go back and revise your ideas because the outline itself gave you new ideas.

Be as detailed as you can be. If you have ideas for sidebars and boxed text, get them in there. If you know how you want to divide your chapters, do it up. Put in as much as you can. When you start writing, you'll be able to fill in those blanks fairly easily, instead of getting stuck and saying "What next?" Indeed, before you dive into a particular chapter or section, you might want to even go so far as to outline the individual sections as well. Anal-retentive? Possibly. But your book will make sense, and while that might not help you sell your idea, a disorganized, nonsensical book will absolutely fail.

As you can see, there's a lot of writing to do before you start writing your game book. I can't stress enough the necessity of forethought and organization. Get your concept organized, then fit it into a book outline. Then, and only then, can you start writing...something we'll tackle next time.

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