Friday, January 8, 2021

Big Boxes of Junk

When I start a game design, I typically start with a giant box of junk. All the things I want, all the pieces, all the story parts and characters, all the systems, and everything gets thrown into the box in a huge, happy, messy pile of junk.

And it sucks as a game.

A lot of designers make the mistake of stopping here and shipping the game. I have shelves full of games that feel they stopped design at this point. They are huge boxes of a thousand different things, as if variety alone made up for a lack of cohesive design. Ironically, this is how Pathfinder ended for us, with dozens of books from several publishers and no real central concept or theme to anything. Sticking to the core book, there was a focused game there, but the curse of the splatbook and chase for financial sustainability ruined what was a clean, interesting take on 3.5 and bloated the game into something that tried to do everything - and many of the classes and powers started to repeat each other and be shuffles and multiclass classes mixers in one class.

But back to designing and my big box of junk. So I throw away the design, keep the pieces, and redesign the whole thing. Maybe I could focus this better on just the best parts. So I have a box full of the best junk only this time!

And it still sucks.

So I begin another process of refolding and refactoring again and again, taking one aspect of the game and aligning all the pieces along that idea - rotating the matrix of pieces to focus on the one of the central ideas. If you have a game "with" monster capturing and training, what happens when you make the game "all about" monster capturing and training? Let's take the pieces, make monster training the central core, and see how everything else lines up.

Supporting Concepts Matter

You may discover entire parts of your game become meaningless and can be discarded. A crafting system? Well, why force players to puts lots of time into crafting - away from their monsters - when we could focus that time on bonding and training the player's monsters? Wouldn't that time be better spent closer to the game's focus and fun? The answer is almost always yes, and you begin cutting features or aligning others to support the main idea.

Crafting pet equipment? A better use for a crafting system in a monster training game because you are still spending that time for your monsters instead of yourself, if you need crafting at all. It is so easy to drop in systems that end up weakening your concept, but at first glance, they seem great to toss into the box.

Please note, don't get too attached to your design - it still may suck.

Your Premise May Be Bad

You may discover that your central premise sucks, let's say your heart isn't into monster training, and you toss out that entire part of the game, shift everything again, and align the game along a new set of core fun features and concepts. Everything else shifts and aligns around the new core, and you begin throwing out and strengthening your core idea. Instead of monster training, let's focus on putting dragon souls into weapons and armor. Everything then aligns to this new idea, does it support the concept or take away from it?

I have had designs get to this phase, a focused, unified whole, yet they still weren't fun. It takes a while of working through things, throwing things away, and really getting to know what you are trying to do and also why you are designing a game. After a while that becomes a feeling, why am I doing this?

Stick with it, there is fun in there somewhere, and it will take a lot of experimenting, redesign, and patience to find.


And then you start playtesting, and everything still sucks.

But you are in a better place now, because you now have a focused design and play experience with something that has a fun core, but broken mechanics. Mechanics can be fixed and tweaked to align along the fun parts of the game.

I wrote a very cool mini rules set, found out it did not focus on the parts I really needed it to focus on, most of the rules were never used, and the parts I did think were going to be fun and work beautifully - sucked. It was okay though, I learned a lot from the playtest and this is all good data. When you playtest, expect to be blindsided about your initial assumptions and how wrong and unfun they are.

Playtesting is the point in the process when you discover how utterly wrong you are. I laugh a lot at myself during this time and ask myself what was I thinking. You do have to approach this process with humor, because being too hard on yourself leads to frustration.

This is why I print all my rules out and scribble all over them with data, cross out things that suck, and make notes like the printout is note paper. Things will get better, but the more you playtest the better they get.

You may need to refocus your design at some point, so there will be back to the drawing board moments. Do not be afraid to toss things away and start over. This is your best skill as a game designer.

My Designs Suck  - At First

I did a design recently that went through these steps, starting off with a big box of junk that sucked. It took a couple transformations to get it to a point where it was less "everything cool" and into "a cool something special." I had to rotate the feature matrix and transform the game several times, with plenty of thrown away work, before I could "see" the game hiding in there.

Sometimes it takes time and repeated tries. Even your highly refined and focused ideas, the ones you get most excited about, can be completely wrong. They can blow up in your face. You will sit there holding a pile of broken bits of rules and concepts and wonder, what happened?

But once you see the game and it captures your imagination, you can rebuild and realign your feature set to support the fun, and toss out rules, patches, and features that distract from your idea.

The game is there, trust me.

Just keep at it, and keep refolding and rebuilding your idea until you find it.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Planning Tools: Articy Draft 3

So I am planning with a tool called Articy Draft 3. It is a nice tool, sort of a set of index cards on steroids, and you are able to extend and subclass any object in the planning tool. Need an entity, which is basically a "noun" type thing in your game? You got it. Need to extend the entity base class as a main or supporting character? You can do that too, and even define custom properties for those base classes, such as a blank character sheet you can fill in for each character. You can extend the entity class to be an equipment item and give it weight, cost, damage, AC, and other values.

This is a first impressions review, so I may be missing a few things, so be warned. But I like first impressions reviews because they give the beginner an idea of what to expect when starting, and how easy the tool it to begin being somewhat productive with.

It also has a storyboard grid for laying out flow, with story parts, folding many cards into one, linking folded cards, and all sorts of other storyboarding tools and useful functions. You can lay out adventures, conversations, scenarios, or even a book in the flow grid and connect events with characters, places, items, and other concepts you come up with.

There is also a location tab that allows you to build maps, drop down characters, link those locations to the story flow, and take all of the noun items you build in your entity creation and all of the story flow parts to your own custom maps and locations. You can put down pawn-like markers for characters on maps to place your characters on a map the size of a room to a universe.

It is not a virtual tabletop, and it is not multi-player. This is a tool for teams or single designers to create structured experiences like games, modules, adventures, or stories. There is no die-roller, web client, or any other virtual tabletop functions. They have sort of a Powerpoint presentation mode for flows, but I have not figured it out yet. We are talking game design and planning today, not playing.

Easy to Get Lost

One point is that it is very easy to get lost in this tool, and I found myself fighting it as it started shaping my idea instead of my idea's structure and flow - the one in my head - being dominant. I threw out several versions of my plan as I found myself collecting junk again, making giant lists of everything, and ending up with junk drawers of hundreds of things, dozens of relationships, but no real plan.

I did a story, but the structure took over the story in several ways, and I found that the central core ideas in my story were sidelined to unimportant story branches. This is just as much on me as it is the tool, as not every idea translates well into a structured grid. It could be my idea is not baked enough and it needs several more revisions, and in my feeling getting to the point where you are writing things down and throwing them in the recycle-bin is a lot better than having them sit in your head and go nowhere.

There is a benefit to doing a lot of work and being forced to throw it out. Your idea gets refined with each iteration, more focused, and improves with each revision. You also start to quickly find the problems with your idea and begin to weed those out.

My advice? Do not get too invested in one project file to rule them all. Keep making them and throwing them out. Keep your project resources in a resource directory apart from your planning board and keep this as the giant sheet of newsprint on the table you can scribble all over, pull a fresh sheet onto your workspace, and tear off the old one to dispose of.

Adventure Design

This tool is a bit of overkill for designing a B/X adventure for a one-shot, as it is a professional level planning tool If I were writing a module to publish? Yes, I would use this tool as my first choice sine it organizes and collects ideas, stats, story parts, maps, and all the other bits that go into an adventure. One word of warning, what you design in this tool can be so complex getting it out may be an entirely different challenge.

You could design a B/X adventure so complex and intricate that describing it in traditional book form would take hundreds of pages, and I am still not sure many people could successfully take a complex, twisting narrative and present it in a traditional PDF adventure module. The idea may be clear in Articy and inside your head, but would readers ever get all of the ideas that you want to communicate?

You could have a battle in a B/X module where you face the vampire count, and if a player has a certain item, such as a stopwatch, the narrative could branch and turn into an incredible narrative. This would be clear to the designer in the program, but to the referee reading the module, or even the players playing through it, may not be obvious and the entire arc ignored as they hack and slash their way through.

A side note there too on audience expectations. Yes, that optional narrative arc is great for a story game, but in a more traditional hack-and-slash game that effort may be wasted as your audience came for one experience but the tool allowed you to design another. Don't get distracted by a tools cool capabilities and allow it to steer you off course, and be aware of what your audience came to see.

One could also create a story so complex and intricate that translating it into a game engine, such as a visual novel, RenPy, Inform, Twine, Unreal, Gamemaker, Godot, or other game or story engine would be darn well next to impossible. You could create it and lay it out, sure, but you could easily outstrip your ability to manage that much complexity, code, and engine expertise to get whatever you design out of there without a team of dozens and a couple million dollars to invest in a game company.

One of the best pieces of advice I can give when using this too is: be aware of the limitations of your target format and your own abilities. Also, be aware of your target audience and what they expect.

Export: Possibly an Issue

The tool has export functions for game engines and various formats, but for story and adventure design I have found, so far, that all my work is staying inside the tool and I am using it as a reference library. This was one reason I stayed away from learning this tool for so long, I was hesitant to adopting a proprietary tool that I could not export from easily in my planning and design work.

Part of me wishes you could export a visual novel or standalone story experience directly from the tool, as that would be ideal even for demos and rapid prototyping. Or even a PDF of the entire idea in book format. They may have an extension for that somewhere, or they may not, I do not know enough at this point as this is a first impressions review. They do have a variety of exporters, including Word and Excel spreadsheets along with JSON and XML, so it is possibly a matter of time or searching for the one that fits your needs. There is an API toolkit too, so further work in this areas is possible.

If you are writing a B/X style adventure for a PDF release, a visual novel, or a novel, yeah, I feel you will be doing all of the exporting and copying over the idea to the new format yourself. What you do gain is superior organization and refactoring abilities, so at least all of your ideas will be easier to pull out and describe. All of your relationships and links will also be easier to reference and organize.

You can get the raw data out in a variety of formats, but for my needs and use cases, I will be doing a lot of the work on format translation and presentation.

A Keeper!

This is a nice tool, and after using it a day it has already found a spot in my game design workflow. After a couple hours I was feeling somewhat productive, and it started revealing flaws in my ideas and designs. That is priceless, and if a tool has me throwing out work because it is garbage of my own design I find that highly useful and increases my productivity.

For highly imaginative types, you have no idea how valuable it is to have tools that collect the garbage in our heads, put it into bins, and allow us to see it as a whole and toss out whole parts at once is to our workflow. For some people the ability to collect, organize, and throw away garbage is more important than the ability to nicely organize things on index cards on a corkboard. The more you wreck, scribble on, destroy and rebuild your idea the better. Don't be shy, and do not be afraid to throw it all away and start fresh.

I need a tool that organizes chaos, lets me see the destruction as a whole, and hauls away the mental debris like a garbage truck and a street full of dumpsters - leaving me with the best parts.

This tool does that job.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Automation and Repetition (and Repetition)

D&D's "passive perception" mechanic always kind of bugged me like "take a 10" or "take a 20" did. Not as something I really disliked, just as something that felt like an unneeded mechanical dongle to stop arguments or eliminate a broken rule by writing another rule to patch the issue.

In the "take a 20" example, this simulates trying something over and over again until you do roll that 20 (or a 10 if you were in a hurry). I played a lot of games where I only allowed a skill roll ONCE for a given course of action. That lockpicking skill roll meant something, that was your one shot, your one chance, and if you blew it there was no rolling again.

Think of another way, because narratively it was always more exciting and interesting to me to make that skill roll mean something more than "a failed first attempt." No, all your "failed first attempts" are included in that skill roll, and we are rolling for the end of the process. You roll for the last roll.

Even in fiction and movies it is always more exciting to see a pass or fail attempt, and then watch the characters deal with the result instead of trying again and again. Yes, as someone kicks a door open, there may be more than one kick, but that is all the same skill or ability roll. It is not "one roll per kick."

With passive skills I feel we are in the same area. Why not have a "passive combat skill?" All monsters with an AC lower than your passive combat skill are auto hit, just roll for damage. Well, a combat blow is a single pass-fail event, right? So why can't that be for skills as well, in the larger, narrative sense? If your game is moving more towards storytelling, why not make larger narrative assumptions about skill rolls and eliminate the "turn by turn" roll repetition of pure simulation?

Story-wise, the elf ranger gets one attempt to lead the party through the evil forest. On a pass, the story goes one way, on a fail, it goes the other. Both results could have goods and bads, without taking a month off to "take a 20" for a navigation roll and just assume success.

If you are putting in a system to auto-assume success in a story game, then your failure results need fixing. They are not interesting, block the story, and provide no enjoyment other than delay. In an old school game? Fine, fail and suffer! In a story game, a failure condition should branch the narrative - not stop it dead in its tracks. Otherwise what is the point?

Some modules with those "locked doors that block the story" suck for a story game and those doors should not be in there. Or there should be another way around. A referee needs to spot these module design issues and make allowances - designers make mistakes, and not all modules are good for all types of games (without modification). Again, in an old school game? Different entirely, you are locked behind that door until you turn into the skeleton encounter in room #10.

If you are going to automate something away to the point of not checking for it, the question has to come up - why not eliminate the mechanic entirely from the game? I feel there is just way too much silly automation and allowed repetition in games these days, where they assume a passive perception check like a radar system, or taking "extra time" to guarantee a certain roll because they are hand waving around rolling a d20 for every skill check all night until it passes.

The game may have a problem that if repeated checks are necessary for most skill rolls, then I would say your game's difficulties should be lowered and make them a single pass-fail check and be done with it. Also, if your game needs passive skill levels, you are introducing another system of "number versus number" checking whenever the party enters a room. What is everyone's passive perception? Number versus number time again!


Even if you write them all down, does checking that list of numbers every time the party moves into an unexplored area really save you much time over the old way? It just feels like more bookkeeping and simulation to me, like a game with submarines and passive sonar ratings with circles of detection radius sliding around a map.

You could probably eliminate passive perception in a purely storytelling game just through writing careful room descriptions that allow players to pick up on inconsistencies in the environment. The light from the chandelier passes right through the table. The shelf is not flat against the wall. One of the chairs it tipped over. The coat rack is full except for the second hook. The floor has a strange star like pattern that repeats down the center of the hall until the doors.

Those could be nothing or they could be something. Let the players pick up on it and ask the referee questions.

If you eliminate passive perception, you are eliminating the builds that specialize in passive perception. But, really, are those needed? If everything was included in the room descriptions those points would be freed up for other abilities. There are times when creating a passive perception game only feels like it serves the passive perception system that originated in versions of the game that were more geared towards simulation than storytelling.

Also, in old school games the way I play them, there is no perception roll (outside of the special cases, such as the passive abilities for dwarves and elves). Listen to the referee's words and pick up on things. Pay attention and react accordingly. My way of doing it, of course, is not the best and everyone has their own style and preferences. My way of playing is to eliminate the "layered systems" that feel more like patches, and get closer to that one-on-one of a referee and those listening to the words spoken.