Saturday, July 29, 2006

How to design a 600 page roleplaying game

Burning Empires is high on the list of games I want to play in the next couple of years. Thor, who was involved in its production, has started a series of blogposts backgrounding how the game was created.

First post is the background - inspiration, legal processes, ethical challenges, and what the game is 'about':

"The first thing we settled upon was that the underlying metaphor for the game would be disease. The Vaylen were a parasitic infestation infecting the bloated, dying body of humanity. Once we had that concept down [we could] explore the ways in which we could extend that metaphor throughout the game ..."
Second post reveals some stuff I hadn't really taken onboard about the Burning Wheel system:

"Luke and I began focusing on Vaylen culture, which we needed to understand before we could create any rules for them. Burning Wheel’s lifepath system, which we had decided to keep for Burning Empires, requires that you thoroughly understand the structure of a society in order to create lifepaths for it."

The process of developing the Vaylen (parasitic worms) and Kerrn (geneered warriors) is pretty fascinating stuff - and obviously these few paragraphs of description boil down hours and hours of intense game-designy conversation. But, parasitic worms as fully playable characters = Wow.

This post also talks about beginning to come up with implementations of the rules - how Firefights have to be 'about' something; how Psychology (a mind control ability) needed to be balanced so that it wouldn't create player vs. player dysfunction.

And there's this great insight into Luke Crane's design process:

The very first step Luke takes when designing a project (before logos, layout, etc.) is to select fonts.

“Fonts are the foundation for the look of a book." [says Luke]. They’ve got to knit together all the other elements. So for BE, I knew I wanted a different look than BW. It had to have a classic look to it, like BW, but also had to be modern.”

Luke went through his font database of several thousand fonts and made a short list of the fonts that suited his needs.

Third (and last, so far) post has a great comment from Iskander that skim-illustrates how to use theory to improve a game for everybody.

It also talks about playtesting the big rules at a macro-level, so you can run through entire campaigns (or, in this game's case, Worlds) quickly, and shows the gruelling yet valuable work of playtesting. There's some great stuff about how the game is designed to force the creation of a story

There are insights into editing, artwork, and project management (in the form of co-ordinating playtesting when rules are being revised, and every group could have a slightly different draft).

And there's this quote, which I think is key:

"One thing that Luke and I and others at the Forge have seen very clearly is that role playing texts in general are pretty poor at teaching players how to use them. Invariably, creators do things when running their games that are essential to making the games function as they should, and yet some of the most important of those things never make it into the text. We do things that are so ingrained that we take it completely for granted that other players, who learned to play in other environments, do them too. Once you release a game, if you interact with your fans, you quickly start to see patterns in the questions they ask. Pretty soon, the conclusion is inescapable: you’re doing something at your table that is not actually in the text. Burning Wheel is no different than other games in that regard.

Luke and I pledged that we would do our best to hard code the way we played into Burning Empires by critically evaluating every nuance of how we played our games, and making sure it made its way into the text.

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Luke said...

Burning Empires sure does look cool.

I had a look at Burning Wheel and found it one of the most difficult RPGs to penetrate due to Luke's insatiable need to give everything a new set of terminology, which would only be explained as you went through the book. As such, I find some the comment here about making RPGs that support use to be bordering on amusing.

Lets hope, BE changes some of this.

hix said...

Hey Luke, does that mean you know someone with BW? (and I'm assuming you were looking at the first ed, not BW Revised).

Luke said...

1e. It was a long time ago and it was at a Con in Auckland, so I don't really know how to contact the owner.

Despite the revision though, from recent reviews of Revised, the game seems to remain one that is highly respected but one of the steepest learning curves in the industry.

Luke said...

So after skimming Burning Empires, I can say that it is the first RPG I haven't been able to evaluate at all. It is both infuriating and intriguing this lat ein my RPG life :)

My best guess is that the game is either very very good (possibily revolutionary) or very very bad (possibly unplayable). There is nothing in between and I don't know which one is more likely :)

hix said...

How did you skim it?
Who do you know who has it?
Are they going to take it for a test-drive?
Do these questions reveal my eagerness?

Luke said...

I have the PDF. I find that PDFs are a great way to get a better feel for a book if you are not sure you will buy it.

I would be keen to take it for a test drive. It is just a matter of when given that a session is 4 to 5 hours and a phase is 6 sessions. Probably look to try it out after I get my head around it (it is seriously seriously hefty) in September/October. I will let you know but it may be suitable one weekend when you are up with D&M as it can be run on the fly.

To be honest, I am overall impressed. Even if this is not my thing, it is an evolution in RPGs IMO. This is the closest thing to the hybrid RPG I have spoken about a lot of this year. The similarlities between it and The Grand Experiment are a little eerie. I have hopes that the traditional physics based components (over narrative ones) will make it a little easier to "grok". However, the sheer weight of the mechanics may be insurmontable. Only a playtest will reveal which is which :)

I just need to dig out the two graphic novels again and get back into the setting head space.