Sunday, July 11, 2010

In the Weeds - Modularity and Ripping Off Ideas

So instead of starting a new blog about game design, I'm just going to post the boring-to-probably-everyone-but-me discussions about game design under this topic, so you can skip it if you wish. It's not a new weekly feature, just a big warning sign for those not interested in the topic. This one might not be as bad a later ones, just because I'm not talking numbers yet, just some general design goals.

Progress continues along two tracks: the game rules (which I'm tentatively calling the Icon Engine until I can think of a better name) and the campaign (which is tentatively titled The Secret Masters). And though I had come to a blockage on both a couple of days ago, today I had breakthroughs on realizing which pieces I need to work on next.

And that's something new for me. I've never been an organized person, so big projects often stump me with their bigness. I start at the beginning and head for the end, but after I've gotten through the easy beginning bit, I don't know what chunk to do next. My ambition is so big and overwhelming, and every piece seems to connect to every other piece, that I panic, and my brain shuts down. I have no idea what to do first, so ultimately I just drop the whole thing.

But now I know exactly which bit of the rules system I want to design next, and roughly how I want it to look, and how it connects to the other pieces. I've already started the rules manual, which looks more like a Quick Start document than a full-blown game system, which is fine, because I'm thinking of splitting it out into modular documents. A small Quick Start guide for players with the basics of character generation and the combat system, an Advanced Guide with more detailed lists of skills and such, plus more detailed combat rules with examples and explanations, plus a Phase Two Player Guide for character development.

What's the what with that last bit? you're asking. Here's the deal. The Champions rules are detailed and logical, but they are a hugely time-consuming and complicated pain-in-the-ass when you're actually trying to design and balance a character. So I'm stripping that system down and simplifying it in a big way. But the concept of the campaign world is such that I won't even need that part of the rules for initial player character design.

So essentially, when the players first build their characters, they're using only a portion of the design rules, and the simpler portion at that. Later on, if they wish to add more complex abilities, they can, and it's a modular process that doesn't require them to rebuild their characters from the ground up.

Likewise, I've figured out which bit of the campaign world I want to work on next, and how it will relate to everything else, and in figuring that out, I felt a big click in my head that took the campaign from "cool overarching idea that I have no idea how to turn into weekly adventures" to "awesome (I hope) modular campaign design that combines player freedom with a neat overall story." And I'm designing it in a modular fashion as well, ripping off the excellent concepts that Sargon used in our Atlantis campaign (and I'm starting to think that campaign needs some sort of title--Cults of Atlantis, or Mad Gods and Englishmen, or Steam Alchemists or something).

Right at the start of the game, Sargon gave everyone background handouts covering general history and background knowledge. And later, when we'd spent more time in the city in which the game took place, he handed out city guides with maps, once he'd decided we'd been there long enough to have learned our way around, along with more detailed campaign background information. It was a nice way to simulate a learning curve, with not too much information to overwhelm us at first, but enough information later to stimulate the deeper political game that is developing.

So for campaign materials, I'm totally ripping off that concept. The world backgrounder will consist of a handout that players can study or not, along with a brief verbal recap of the information in the backgrounder before the first game session. Once the players have settled into the game environment and learned their way around, a second handout will be forthcoming detailing the town they are living in.

The campaign itself will be designed around three tracks at first: micro, midi and maxi (sounds like feminine hygiene products, doesn't it?). The micro track is an immediate personal situation the players need to resolve over the first several game sessions. The midi track is a separate storyline that concerns doings around the town the players are staying in. The maxi track is a long-term campaign track concerning big players in the game world; it obviously can't be as detailed as the others, because it can go in so many directions, depending on what the players decide to do, but the major players, their overall goals, and some plot seed ideas for each one will be included, something like what 5 ed. Champions did with their Conquerors, Killers and Crooks supplement.

The multiple track idea may sound ambitious, but splitting up the concept in this way makes it a lot easier to get a practical handle on than my original idea, which was the maxi track only, without any good micro ideas to help get the players going for the first few games.


sargon999 said...

A big help going in is knowing your players. Some players are the type who just DO things (I am one of them) and you don't even need that much of a plot for them, they will just run around doing stuff on their own. Other players need to be goaded or helped along. I try to have what I call a "spark" for each player. Something character-related that I can whip out on them if things are getting slow or they seem bored. A person will come and ask them something, they will encounter an event or individual...something to get them moving and involved.

TheyStoleFrazier'sBrain said...

I've seen the way you do that, and that's part of what I'm trying to put together ahead of time with the medium and long-term tracks. Basically, the medium track is a detailed description of the town and surrounding region with dozens of plot hooks that tie into an overall mystery surrounding the area, while the long-term track concerns the machinations of the world's Big Bads, which the PC's will be drawn into.

Whether you call them hooks or sparks or threads, the idea is to toss them out a couple/few at a time. An NPC related to the larger overall plot approaches one character while another is reading a newspaper article related to the mid-plot. The characters can choose to follow one or the other.

I think the thing that made this idea click for me was the concept of the town holding a storyline separate from the metaplot, something that allows the characters to find an adventure on any given night without devoting every single episode to The Big Story.Like how in a given season of Buffy or X-Files or any other show, you have some episodes completely devoted to mythos/season arc, and others that are more or less one-shots.

As I say, it's ambitious, but it's ambitious in pieces, which makes it seem more manageable.