I met Grey Pawn through a group of gamers in Seattle, and joined in a Fate Core game set in an alternate 1950’s pulp scifi world. He was more my flavor of gamer than the rest of the group, with an interest in characterization and story rather than flashy moves and emulating existing characters.
He also designed games, which was something I’d been interested in for a long time. During conversations we’d have about the stuff he was working on, I got it in my head that I should try this. I had an idea that was burning at me to try - a game centered around the emotional impact of a group’s actions, rather than the fictional outcomes of those actions, which people will have seen posted as "the Vessels game". I’m still going to do it, I promise.
By May, I had a dice mechanic. I needed to plug it into some sort of game chassis so I could experiment with it. One of my long-standing Internet handles has been “opensorcerer”, a play on “open source” software, and an analogy of programming as a form of magic. Since I also saw game design as an extension of software design principles, I bridged the two metaphors and got a game about Schmendrick the Magician, who in his own way was a programmer or game designer like me, someone who called on power, and was often surprised by the outcome. So, okay, we have a game with one rule: you can cast spells.
I cribbed the syntactic magic system from GURPS Magic, and expanded it from just nouns and verbs by adding a selection of modifiers. I threw in power costs, and wrote some rules to patch up obvious corner cases. The result was super-simple, but you could play it.
By June, I was getting frustrated. I didn’t have anyone who could or would help test this thing. As a programmer, testing is vital, but in software, you can get a computer to do it. I have no way to automate “fun”, and what’s fun for me as a gamer is very clearly not the same as for most others.
I posted a brief “I’m bailing on this, talk me down” post to a few select friends, and got some positive encouragement. This was enough to remind me that the parameters for success weren’t what I expected.
I began to see the project as more of a personal statement than a thing that people ought to be playing. I’d make it for myself, I’d evaluate it myself, and I’d take it all the way to finished product for the experience of doing so.
There’s concentric rings of work that surround any creative endeavor. When you’re writing code, that code itself is surrounded by important things like scalability or concurrency issues, testability and test coverage, code coverage numbers, deployment considerations, dependencies, documentation, and many more issues. Taken as a whole, the actual code starts to look very small compared to the potential work that goes into making it happen.
The same was true for Inept Sorcerers. Writing a Google Doc wasn’t hard. My goal was to take that and turn it into something I could be proud to publish. I already knew the where: DriveThruRPG, the major source for gaming PDFs.
I went back to GURPS as a model. What did their books have? Nice, clean layouts. Graphics at the top or bottom of a column, at most one per page. I could emulate their style, to a point. I went with two columns instead of three, and made font choices based on recommendations from the Internet or from friends who had done design before.
I used Scribus to do my own layout, and searched the Web for public-domain clip art. I have had an absolutely terrible time recruiting artists for any sort of serious work, so I didn’t hold out hope of getting someone to do art for me this time either. And that was fine. There was plenty of appropriate clip art I could use.
The creative halo around my project grew. The layout of the text with respect to the graphics sometimes demanded that I change the text itself, and so edits were often done with an eye to the flow of text across each page. I learned that this helped make the text more poetic: faced with the need for brevity, brevity came to me.
Late in the game, once I’d finally harangued enough people into testing the damn thing, I resolved to find a professional editor. Tim Bannock had advertised on the Fate Core G+ community earlier, and I had bookmarked his page for later. I contacted Tim and got a good, comprehensive pass through the (admittedly short) text for a very reasonable fee. Tim’s appraisal was thorough, objective, and extremely helpful, and my co-conspirators on the Inept Sorcerers project all agreed once I shared his feedback with them. Without that critical examination, I don’t think I would have had the confidence to really go to print, but Tim helped me cross that final hurdle.
I clicked the button to publish Inept Sorcerers on October 22. This was it. The world might love it, the world might hate it, or the world might simply ignore it - I couldn’t really tell you which alternative I feared more.
Since then, the PDF has been downloaded over 50 times. I’ve actually made back what it cost me to have the document copy-edited. More importantly, I can say that I’ve done this thing.
But now I can share the lessons I learned in doing this thing.
- Be authentic.
- Put your game’s concept to the Twitter Test.
- Don’t make a good game, breed it.
- Start somewhere familiar, then break new ground.
What does “be authentic mean”?
Plant a flag in the ground, stake out some territory on the map of fun, and make a stand there for what you believe will be entertaining. Make your own game, not the game you think will appeal to a lot of people. Inept Sorcerers was, in a way, a reaction to the game group I came from. Could I make a fun experience out of playing people who were inept? Could slapstick sorcerers and half-baked conjurers be entertaining PCs? I thought yes.
What is “the Twitter Test”?
Can you describe the concept you want to develop in a single tweet, of 140 characters or less? If not, either your game must be very complex, or you don’t have a clear idea of what you want to do yet. In either case, go back and try to extract a clear concept from your thoughts, then try again. Inept Sorcerers has an easy premise: “Bumbling magic users cast spells, cause messes, then try to fix messes with magic. Repeat.”
How do you “breed” a game?
I wrote a blog post called Game Design Genetics about the similarities I see between games and living organisms, but the capsule version I’ll leave here is this: the game idea you start with is probably not the game idea you’ll finish with, and that’s okay, because the journey creates the destination. The act of starting to work on a game idea makes it possible for you to create the game you really want. Inept Sorcerers finished largely the same as it started in the core areas, but it did mutate several times. Chaos Capacity became Arcana over a few mutations, for example.
How do you start somewhere familiar, and where do you go?
This is a subset of the game-genetics article, but I’ll dive into it anyway. My ability to produce an interesting game depended on my familiarity with a lot of existing stuff. I name-dropped GURPS and the GURPS Magic supplement specifically. The iconic character for Inept Sorcerers was always Schmendrick the Magician, from The Last Unicorn, so I had a solid mental image of my protagonists and their typical adventures.
The more fiction and gaming stuff you’re aware of, the larger your creative vocabulary will be. Go browse TV Tropes for a few hours. Read, or reread, your favorite genre books. Watch your favorite genre films. When people talk about a game system a lot, like Apocalypse World or Dungeon World or Fate Core, go look it up and learn it. People are talking about it for a reason. When you hear a given mechanic talked about often, like Lady Blackbird’s Keys, or Fate’s Aspects, go learn those things. Every such experience is grist for the mill of your own creative efforts.
These sources all form your creative vocabulary, but it’s on you to say something original with the “words” you’ve acquired. If you don’t have that original spark of an idea, it’s not time to create a game yet.
For that nice professional gloss that will actually get people to care about your work, you need the following elements: layout, art, editing, and refinement. Each of these represents work that somebody, often you, will have to do.
Layout is simple: you want to produce a PDF, using some sort of publishing program like InDesign or Scribus. Scribus is definitely cheaper, and can definitely do the job. If you don’t already have InDesign, go download and learn Scribus.
Art is trickier, as not everybody is an artist. You should research public domain or Creative Commons licensed art, suitable for use in your project. Use it judiciously, the way someone adds garnish to a dinner plate. Good art attracts the eye and softens the sameness of page after page of text. Be prepared to shell out some money here, if you want custom art. At minimum, you will need something unique and distinctive for a cover page.
Editing requires someone else, hopefully someone with editing experience. Ryan Macklin wrote a shitload of stuff here explaining editing, what it is, how to do it well, and so forth, but the short version is that an editor is the person who will tell you "this fucking sucks because Tangible Reason X", with an optional “and you can try Alternative Approach Y instead”. If you can extract that X, and hopefully that Y, from a conversation with someone who reads your text, you will profit thereby. If all you get is “this fucking sucks”, find a new editor.
In crypto - there’s software engineering, poking its head into game design again - there’s something called Schneier’s Law. Basically, it goes like this: “Anyone can invent a security system that he himself cannot break”. But you can generalize this into another form: “Anyone can create an idea so clever that they themselves can’t spot any flaws in it”.
When writing, because we already have the core idea in our head, we don’t need to tell ourselves what we mean. When we go back and read our own text, those memories confidently assert themselves, like branches growing from the great tree rooted in our imagination. Our challenge as writers is to take a scion from the tree in our minds, the one that grew from the seed of our idea, and graft it into the minds of our readers. They won’t benefit from all that we know about our own idea, after all. The art of writing well is the selection and ordering of our ideas in written form to convey the essence of that idea, so that a similar tree will grow for them. The benefit an editor provides is a mind that doesn’t yet contain our idea, but also the self-awareness to recognize and call out the places where our graft is incomplete.
Refinement doesn’t just mean changing your game rules, or breeding new versions of your game, though that can be a part of it. It also means taking feedback about everything I’ve talked about here, from art to word choice to rules. It’s the art of listening, and the need to stay true to what makes your idea work. Some people, while they mean well, might suggest things that would pull your game out of its natural zone if you did them. Resist the urge to give into every suggestion, but likewise open yourself to the possibility that you were wrong about something, even about your own game.
Making Inept Sorcerers happen felt like creating and nurturing a living, growing thing. It evolved, it changed, it had baby steps and missteps, but now it’s able to function on its own.
Don’t treat your creations as static works of art, and don’t mistake the first thing that comes out of your mind to be the best design you can come up with. Build outward from your idea, and be ready for your idea to go in odd directions you didn’t expect. Let it grow naturally, and it will be beautiful.