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Musings of a Would-Be Game Designer

Reality Checks

by Mike Martinez
Sep 23,2003


Musings of a Would-Be Game Designer

By Mike Martinez

Reality Checks

First off, thanks to everyone who participated in the message boards here, dropped me an e-mail and checked out the Spacebuckler Web site (which, by the way, got a facelift over the weekend). My partners and I were really taken aback at the overwhelmingly positive response, which was a great relief to all involved with this game.

Honestly, it makes me think that we aren't crazy, and that we might have something good here. And that goes along with the theme of this week's column.

Last time, I talked about the importance of the idea for your game. I hope it didn't discourage anybody - ideas are ephemeral things, and everybody's experiences are going to be different. As long as the ideas keep flowing and your enthusiasm stays steady, you're on the right track.

Of course, it's a long and twisted road from idea to product, as anybody in any business will tell you. In something as subjective as writing, it's even more twisted. So, you have an idea. Now what?

Get a reality check.

My reality check for Spacebuckler came in the form of my friend Drew, who is one of the most creative and intelligent people I know and a delightfully devious gamemaster besides. I wanted him to see my idea, mostly because I was proud of it but also because I felt it was lacking something. I had spent a few days developing my idea into a 20-page Word document, an extremely rough setting draft. I outlined the inhabitable planets of the Solar System, the cultures and empires of Earth, the two major alien races I thought of, and a few other things.

My problem was that most RPGs out there have "kewl powerz" to bring that extra level of fantasy - some might even say twinkery - to their players. Now, even though I had 74-gun ships of the line duking it out in space, I was reluctant to bring in the traditional elements of high fantasy. In my mind, Castle Falkenstein was the perfect game for marrying historic role-playing with traditional fantasy. Besides, having wizards and clerics just didn't seem right for Spacebuckler. But without powers, was I missing out on a main staple of role-playing games and hurting my sales? I wanted to sell the game, after all, but I didn't want to compromise the setting, either.

I e-mailed my concept document to Drew, my friend of 14 years and currently an English teacher in Japan. My response came a few days later. I wish I had saved the e-mail for posterity's sake, but I can report feeling relieved that his enthusiasm seemed to match my own. Even better, he had some really great ideas for making the game better.

Given that I was thinking of a strong historical basis for the game, thus grounding players with something familiar, Drew felt I could go even further with the strangeness of the physical setting. He suggested a Ptolemaic model for the Solar System, rather than the Copernican model I was going with. In other words, put the flat Earth in the center, and have the flat Moon, Sun and planets revolve around the Earth instead of the Sun. In essence, he was taking the medieval mindset of the world - a flat Earth at the center of the universe that you could sail off of - and extrapolating it to the 18th century. It's turned out to be a core concept in the game.

As for kewl powerz, Drew followed the medieval line again and came up with alchemy, an art still practiced in the 18th century and which, at the time, was slowly morphing into modern science. Alchemy is a much more subtle art than wand waving and chanting, to be sure, but one that could potentially be very powerful in the right hands. He also noted that the Chinese were heavily into alchemy, and that the discovery of alien worlds, full of unusual flora, fauna and minerals, could lead to a Renaissance in alchemy at the exact time when, in our world, it started to wane in favor of hard science.

I could have hugged him. He gave me two brilliant ideas that added a lot of mystery and depth to the setting. And I managed to extrapolate a third idea from his e-mail. Instead of armored clerics casting spells, what if the servants of the Catholic Church could perform miracles? And, heresy of heresies, what if other clergy could do the same? Suddenly, we had a whole other socio-political-religious aspect to the game in addition to more kewl powers.

My second, and equally important, reality check came from another good friend and role-player, John. I prevailed upon him to give it a read with an eye toward his participation as both artist and layout guy. To hear him tell it, I caught him at the wrong time - he was just starting up a Judge Dredd d20 campaign and with a wife, kids and a fixer-upper house to contend with, he didn't necessarily want to add something else to his schedule.

And then he read it. "Now I have a lot of the same imagery dancing around my head. Most of it was probably just me feeding off of your excitement, but I must say tt has my mind whirring, all of the time," he told me in an e-mail a few weeks ago. I can't tell if it was a complaint or not. Not only is he doing art and layout, but he's going to run some playtesting and will likely become Spacebuckler's resident expert on the Venusians.

The lesson here? Everybody needs a reality check. For one, if your friends are good enough and honest enough, they won't hesitate to tell you whether you're on the right track or not. Believe me, John wouldn't be staying up late if he didn't think this would fly, and Drew...he'd tell me in no uncertain terms.

Furthermore, exposing your concept to other people often results in a better concept all around as you gather opinions and mull them over in your head. Both Drew and John, along with many other friends, family members and RPG.net forumites, have contributed to Spacebuckler or, at the very least, encouraged me to keep going. Even my wife, Kate, who remains deeply suspicious of gaming and gamers, thinks this game is a good idea.

People can be touchy about exposing their hard-won concepts and writing to the world, especially when criticism might be involved. Well, I can only say this - get over it. If you're writing a game you hope to get published some day, chances are somebody somewhere is going to criticize the heck out of it, whether it's an angsty fanboy on a random message board or a well-respected reviewer on RPG.net or GamingReport.com. It's better to get feedback in the early stages to make sure you're on the right track, and add your friends' and colleagues' ideas into the mix. You and your game will be much better for it.

Crunch Time

Speaking of systems, the next thing I tackled was the game system I wanted to use. Actually, it was more of a parallel thought process as I fleshed out the setting, since I knew from word one that I wanted this to be a game.

The system is an important part of the game, as I believe the rules certainly impart a flair to a game that can make or break it. D&D wouldn't be the same without character classes, whether or not you like d20. For years, I equated Star Wars with the old d6 system, which made things quick, easy and very cinematic. And the aforementioned Falkenstein used a brilliant playing card system that did wonders for imparting a Victorian flair to the game.

Most of my game book reading - playing hasn't really been in the cards for me over the last few years - has been in White Wolf's Vampire and Mage lines. I also played in GURPS for a while. I hadn't touched D&D since before college - and remember, I'm old!

But then I remembered one of the last AD&D products I ever purchased - Spelljammer. Fantasy in space! I had since divested myself of a copy, but I recently managed to find another one through my FLGS. That's when I began wondering whether d20 would work. I downloaded the SRD and license guide and sat down for a good read.

Guess what? I'm writing a d20 game.

Why? For one, I don't have to reinvent the wheel. Like many writers, I suck at math. Suck badly. I hate it with the pure white heat of a thousand suns. The last thing I wanted to do was to go through all the probability mechanics needed to create a system from scratch. I've seen some of the posters on the Forums here create new dice mechanics, and my hats off to 'em, since I can barely slog through the posts, let alone understand them.

Secondly, it's not like I'm going to get White Wolf or Steve Jackson Games to license their rules systems to me. I'm also pretty sure they're not interested in buying a new game setting so radically different from everything else they're doing, especially one from a novice game designer. In fact, I e-mailed Dr. Kromm over at SJ with a pitch a few weeks after my alleged epiphany. I got a very nice "no thanks" and some encouragement to keep at it. Hey, it beats a "piss off" e-mail any day.

Third, d20 sells. After ten years as a professional writer, I tend to want to monetize my work, even with Spacebuckler, a project I've enjoyed writing more than anything else I've done. With d20, I have a built-in market that might not otherwise look at a completely new setting and a completely new rules set. Think d20 is impure and evil? Go and invest hundreds of writing hours in a game, then come tell me about purity. I'm writing because I love it, first and foremost, but selling this thing runs a close second.

Choosing a game system is critical in designing your game. You really ought to be familiar with the system you choose - I've had one helluva learning curve with d20, but seeing it implemented in the new D&D and Star Wars games was immensely helpful. Still, I'm far more familiar with GURPS and the Storyteller system. I've leaned heavily on the OGL e-mail lists and the Forums here, and members of both have been gracious with their answers and advice.

Obviously, you have to be sure you can actually use the system you want to design for. If you're doing a home-brew game, this isn't a problem. Want to do GURPS? Go for it. Want to publish a GURPS supplement on your own? Mr. Jackson and his lawyers would like a word with you. So if you want to publish, familiarity will be outweighed by access. BESM and the Action! System are both under the Open Game License now - if anybody else is, let me know or post below, but they're the only ones I can think of besides d20 and d20 Modern.

It's OK to let business considerations enter into your decision on a game system - obviously, economics had something to do with the fact that Spacebuckler is a d20 game. However, I can easily imagine many games were d20 would be utterly inappropriate and would detract from the game. My only advice here is to choose carefully, and do your best to balance your game design with your business goals.

Would d20 impart the flair I needed to make Spacebuckler unique? I looked at the SRD and decided that, yes, d20 would do, though only with some changes and a few additions from the d20 Modern SRD. Thankfully, because of the open game license, I could make those changes and additions pretty easily. Would it sell? The 3.5 version of the Player's Handbook was in Amazon's top ten selling products recently. There's certainly a market for d20. Good enough for now.

With that, I got down to the nuts and bolts of designing a role-playing game, starting with resarch...which will be the subject of my next column.

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What do you think?

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