A Walk in the Dark A look in to the mind of an RPG designer



Ever Forward

Before I continue with this blog, I thought I'd clarify a little about myself. I am a "gamer" in the traditional sense, and have been involved with game design and game development for close to 25 years. But, as far as D&D goes, I'm somewhat inexperienced when it comes to running a campaign in person... I'm currently DM-ing four different campaigns and playing in around six or seven, all of which are "play by post" (mostly on the Wizards of the Coast forums). The last time I played a live session of D&D - with other humans - was around 1988.

A lot of my ramblings will seem to most as the trivial, nonsensical banter from someone who may not know what he's talking about and is not experienced in this sort of thing. I freely admit that, when it comes to running a campaign that isn't exclusively online, I don't have the level of experience in this genre that most of my readers do. I will make mistakes, say things that are incorrect, talk about things that have been talked to death... Simply because I'm clueless.

As it turns out, Critical Hits had an article today called "So You Want to Write RPGs", which talks about what it takes to be an RPG designer... And it got me thinking a bit. Of the seven things listed, I fail miserably at a couple of them, and the ones that I do fail at might not be that easy to remedy because of personal situations and available means (full time job, family, geography, etc...). So if I do want to make a run of this sort of thing, I have a lot of work to do. Will that stop me from doing what I want to do? Probably not. If I don't follow those suggestions and continue on the way I have been, I might end up with a product that sucks.

Honestly, I don't care if it does.

Ten years ago I was the lead programmer of a group called "The Redeemed Assassins", and we were developing The Opera: an add-on for the original Half-Life from Valve Software. Development of TO was a brutal, painstaking process that took several years, and during that time we suffered in ways I can't even begin to describe. But we did it anyway. When asked why we would go through so much trouble to create something that would be disliked by anyone who saw it, and would probably not last a week (we released at the same time that CounterStrike came on to the scene; 99% of all Half-Life servers were running CS at the time, and there simply wasn't an audience for anything else) we had a simple answer: "If one person found our product enjoyable, that will make us happy."

After over two years of development, we finally released it... And it lasted about three weeks before it was overwhelmed by the tens of thousands of CounterStrike servers. But, to our surprise and happiness, there was actually more than one person out there that really liked what we did. That made it all worthwhile, and despite appeasing only a handful of people it reassured us that the past two years weren't a total waste.

As nice as it would be, I'm certainly not doing this for fame or fortune. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I've been a game designer for almost twenty-five years and during that time I don't think I've ever been paid to do anything game related (Valve flew me for a day to Seattle to meet the HL2 development team... Does that count?). This isn't a career, and at this point in my life I'm not expecting to make a living doing this sort of thing. But I do it anyway because I do this for myself and the hope that there's someone out there that might actually enjoy my creations.

So I press on, pouring hours upon hours in to something that has no other apparent reward beyond being a part of it. I will continue development of this campaign in the way that I think it should be, even if some of my designs might be awkward and not for everyone. The campaign might end up being such a train wreck that that nobody will ever run it in a table top game, or it might be so campy and flawed that nobody cares for it.

But in the back of my mind I'll remain hopeful that one person out there might like it, or might benefit in some way from that which I do.

Until I find out who that one person is... "Ever forward."

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  1. As you suggest, the bottom line is having fun. It can be fun to just create and see your vision/ideas become something. At the same time, if what you want is to create something for others, that task is done best when you can give them something that will please them. The more you can gain experience in what people want, the better you can do that.

    One of the best ways to do this is to A) play and especially judge in the RPGA and B) go to conventions. Both of these allow you to see a wide range in writing/authoring, DMing, and play styles. I would add as C) playing other games. You don’t “need” to play a lot of RPGs to get valuable perspective. Just a few evenings with 1-2 other games is actually really helpful. Comparing the RPGA’s Living Greyhawk or Living Forgotten Realms to Crafty Game’s Spycraft living campaign or AEG’s Legend of the Five Rings has been invaluable. The different approaches are amazing, because each style accomplishes different things.

    We can now add another option for gaining experience, which is D&D Encounters. Like living campaigns, Encounters can give you a solid perspective on what people like, though this is more true if you can see different people in the program (vs one steady group).

    Online play, including PbP, can provide insights. However, they really are different. I’ve played PbP Legend of the Five Rings and it is very insular and different game-play-wise from the actual tables. Similarly, MapTool games of LFR have been very different than actual games. That may not be the case for you.

    None of this is written to take away from what you are doing. But, if your aim is to please others, seeing more of what the audience wants is likely really valuable.

    • I appreciate the input!

      FWIW, I am making arrangements to go to GenCon this year. I’m also looking for local options in terms of table top play (Encounters) or possibly online play (VT, Skype). It’s just a matter of available time, though.

      But I admit that, even though I will continue development, I probably won’t release it to the public until I feel it’s ready and others will enjoy it. I’ll just keep talking about it in the meantime. 🙂

  2. Alphastream said it all! The issues I discussed are focused mainly on writing RPGs (or really writing anything) for public consumption where there are other people involved in the process, and there is a publication schedule. I wouldn’t expect people working on their own personal projects to need to follow that advice, and I certainly don’t if I am just putting a game together for friends or family. And anyone who expects either fame or fortune from RPG work needs to get themselves re-aligned quickly. 🙂

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