Digging in the Dirt

star_wars_its_a_trapIn world-building, it’s easy to get caught up in history. After all, the world that we’re building is based on everything that’s come before, and today’s conflicts are the results of yesterday’s conflicts. But crafting all that history is a trap, and here’s why:

No one cares.

Okay, there might be a Tolkein-style obsessive fan out there who can’t get enough backstory, but by and large, your audience wants the story that’s happening RIGHT NOW. They couldn’t care less about the stories that led up to this point.

Now, am I saying you should ignore your world’s history? Of course not. But you should treat it like dirt: It’s the soil, the ground, the rock that everything is built on… but no one thinks about it much. It’s just there. Still, dirt is important. It’s where you plant story seeds to grow the stories that your audience actually does care about.

No one cares about the field, but they love the crops it produces.

If you want to listen me ramble more on the subject of world-building, I’m running a class April 25 through May 16 in Denver and we’ve still got some slots available.

(If you want to read another RPG designer’s thoughts on history in RPG, check out Asparagus Jumpsuit’s blog posts on the subject.)

Feature-Focused World-Building

There’s no wrong way to build a world. Oh, there are lots of ways to build a world that is wrong (Why are these rivers flowing uphill? How did this illiterate warrior culture write so many guidebooks?), but the specifics of the actual world-building process itself doesn’t matter so long as it gets you the results you want.

Some folks like to start small (“Here’s a village of minotaurs”), then expand the scope (“In a nation of minotaurs”) until they’ve built out the world (“On this planet of minotaurs”). Others prefer to start with broad strokes, like continental shorelines, and work their way down to the nitty-gritty.

While thinking about what approach I want to take when introducing world-building to a classroom of 5th-7th graders (NEW DATES! April 25 – May 16, slots are still available), I decided to attempt a third path: focusing on features.

“Features” are those people, places, and things that make the world unique and fascinating, elements that excite the world-builder and intrigue the audience. They can be literally anything: Living spaceships fueled by junk food, flying castles ruled by skeletal princesses, competitive astral projection leagues, a courtroom where you can sue death, or lava giants whose singing brings the gods to tears. (Okay, these are Adventure Time levels of weird, but you get the idea.)

Once you’ve got your features figured out, then you extrapolate the rest of the world by answering two questions:

  • How did these features come to be?
  • How do these features affect the world around them?

Now, you still have to make sure the world makes some sense. Rivers still flow from the mountains to the sea and illiterate cultures don’t run publishing houses. But you’ve got more freedom to break the rules so long as it justifies your awesome features. Folks won’t mind water running uphill so much if it lets them have singing lava giants.

Moons of World-Building

Update: The dates for the world-building camp have moved from mid-March to late April.

I’ve been hinting about it on Facebook and Twitter for a few weeks while we got the specifics nailed down, but today the time of hinting is over. I’m pleased to announce that I am helping design and facilitate a pair of educational kids’ day camps for Threshold School.

The first of these, World-Building Camp, starts on April 25 and runs for four Saturdays. In the course of creating their own world, the students not only get to pick my brain on world-building (I have a few thoughts on the subject), but get to work with real-world scientists to make sure the ecology, geology, and anthropology makes sense. We’ve even got an artist on hand to help visualize their creations. At the end of the program, we help the kids write up their world in terms of game statistics to turn it into a publishable sourcebook for the Pathfinder RPG.

The second camp, Moons of Zartak, is a day-long live-action game event on Saturday, April 18. In this sci-fi game, players take on the roles of refugees from across the galaxy establishing colonies on the resource-rich planet of Zartak. In order to build up their colonies, players must face the strategic challenges found in many video games—managing resources, crafting new assets, negotiating with other colonies—but in a live, face-to-face environment. The game rewards collaboration, creativity, and problem-solving.

World-building is obviously one of my passions, and I’ve been wanting to run a live-action game like this for years, so I’m very excited about both of these projects.

The camps are being held in the Denver area and are open to kids in grades 5-7. If it sounds cool to you (or your child, who would be the one actually participating), please check out the links above. And if you know someone else who you think might be interested, please feel free to pass the links along.

More Punching More Crunching

gp_rpg_logoWhat time is it? It’s ghost-punching time! Specifically, it’s time to post a little more Savage Worlds mechanical “crunch” for Ghost Punchers RPG. Since Edges and Hindrances are always popular (and I’ve already done a few), I figured I’d share a few more for your critique and delight:


Alternate Identity
Requirements: Novice
Whether it’s because he’s on the run from the law, paranoid about giving out his true name, or just worried that his mother might find out about his ghost-punching habits, the hero with this Edge has an alternate identity he can use. This identity includes at least one piece of official documentation such as a drivers license or Social Security card that passes all but the most thorough investigations. This Edge can be taken multiple times to provide multiple identities. For each identity, the hero’s player must decide how he obtained the documentation.

Sympathetic Ear
Requirements: Novice, Spirit d6+
While most folks who’ve encountered a ghost don’t like discussing their experiences for fear of being called crazy, they don’t mind talking about it to a hero with this Edge. Heroes with Sympathetic Ear have an empathetic aura about them that makes others want to trust and open up to them. They add +2 to their Streetwise or Persuasion rolls when trying to get get information out of people through gentle conversation.


Flat Broke (Minor)
Punching ghosts is a way of life, but it doesn’t necessarily pay the bills. Maybe the hero’s obsession with ghost-hunting ruined her finances. Or maybe she’s never been well-off, and it’s got nothing to do with her penchant for supernatural violence. In any case, the hero starts off without a home or vehicle, owning nothing more than the clothes on her back and no more than $50 in cash or equipment.

Infamous (Minor or Major)
A hero with this hindrance is well-known and well-hated. (The reasons for this infamy are up to the player and the GM, but may involve betrayal, a terrible misunderstanding, or large accidental fires.) As a Minor Hindrance, the hero is only despised by people of a single large community, such a stamp collectors, journalists, or other ghost-punchers. As a Major Hindrance, the hero’s infamy is so wide-spread, he’s hated where ever he goes. While dealing with those who hate him, the hero is subject to rudeness, ridicule, and a -2 to his Charisma. The only way to avoid such indignities is to try to not be recognized.

Baby-stepping into Unity

unity_logoYes, I’ve said it before, at least twice–though I meant it those times too–but it’s time I buckled down and taught myself to use Unity to make video games. The idea has been tickling the back of my skull for the past year, but after using Unity again on last month’s game jam game, that tickle has turned into an irritating itch that can only be scratched by climbing the learning curve and planting the flag of competence atop the mountain of over-extended metaphors.

“What’s Unity?” you may ask.

“It’s a game engine,” I reply. Then I see that doesn’t really answer your question, so I explain. “It’s a piece of software you can use to make games. It’s made specifically for 3D, but you can do 2D games with it too. It’s made with designers and artists in mind, so you can do some basic stuff with it without real programming, which I find appealing since I’m not a real programmer.”

“But I thought you took those programming classes in college?” you ask.

“That was one class. More than 15 years ago. And I barely passed.”

“Was that when you became an English major?”

“This hypothetical conversation is getting pretty personal,” I say. I nod pointedly at the door. You sigh, kick at the floor, and exit the blog post, stage right.

So, yeah. Unity. Powerful. Free. Massive community with tons of support. It’s time to climb that hill again. Watch this space and I’ll let you know from time how far up the trail I’ve reached.

Two Sides of Game Design

Two-sided coin of game designWhile chatting with some other game-making types a while back, I made a bold statement about game design. A good game designer (I proclaimed) needs to have not one, but two main skills: the ability to design (duh), and the ability to communicate that design to others.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve created the best board game since (insert your favorite board game here and don’t say Monopoly or I’ll break your legs), if no one can make sense of your rules, no one will play it.
Here’s a diagram:

Your Brilliant Game > Rules Sheet > Players’ Brains

Communication is even more important in video game design. In digital, you don’t write rules for players, you write documentation for programmers, who use their cyber-wizardry to transform those documents into computer code, the results of which appear for the players to see and interact with.

Another diagram? Okay:

Your Brilliant Game > Documentation > Programmers’ Brains > Computer Code > Game on the Screen > Players’ Brains

As you can see, there are more steps between the brilliant game you have in your head and the game that the players actually experience. More steps means more places for your design to get lost in translation. So while excellent communication is important in tabletop, it’s absolutely essential for video games.

Am I saying you need an English degree to design games? Of course not (though my English degree has certainly come in handy). Just be aware that designing the game is only one side of the coin.

Magical Choices

mana_backLast month, I wrote about choices in games, and how they should be meaningful, informed, and limited. (It’s short. Go on and read it if you haven’t. I’ll wait.)

Today, I’d like to briefly revisit that territory with a look at Magic: the Gathering and beauty of limited choices.

One of the most elegant parts of the grand-daddy of all TCGs is how its choices start out super-limited, but expand over time. Consider, if you will, the play pattern of a typical* game:

At the start of the game, you have no cards in play and no mana. You have one decision to make: what type of land card to play from your hand. (And if you only have one type of land in your hand, it’s not even a decision, really, since the only meaningful choice is to play that card.)

Once you have that land in play, you have a wider array of choices, but they’re still limited to what you have in your hand — and in a “typical” hand, only about half of those cards are viable choices (since the others require more mana than you have, or mana of a color you don’t have yet).

It’s often not until the second or third turn that you have to expand your decision-making to include not only the cards in your hand, but your card in play. Even then, some number of cards from your hand can still be ignored for now for lack of mana.

Of course, it doesn’t take too long for the game to explode into a crazy interconnected web of decisions that may be anything but limited. But that’s fine. You’ve ramped into that complexity rather than diving into it on the first turn, and that makes all the difference.

Yay for limited choices!

* Yes yes, some decks and more experienced players don’t necessarily follow this play pattern. I’m speaking in broad generalities here.

A Game Well-Jammed

invaders_splashAs I mentioned previously, this past weekend was the 2015 Global Game Jam. During those madcap 48 hours, I teamed up with Chris Hill, Kit Burgess, and Blake Parsons (who probably has a website, but he won’t share it with me – something about “national security” and “outstanding warrants”) to make a happy little space shooter we called Invaders from Sector 255.

Invaders is a three-player co-op game. One player steers the ship, another aims and fires the gun, and the third controls the shields. The enemies are color-coded, and dictate how the players interact with them: the shield-player must match the color of the shields to the color of the incoming bullets to block them, and the gun-player must match the colors of the enemies with his bullets in order to damage them.

The game’s write-up and playable build are found on the GGJ website here.

I designed the game and its levels. Kit handled much of the programming, Blake provided most of the artwork, and Chris swapped between his programmer, artist, and producer hats as needed. It was a pretty intense weekend, with a bit less sleep than I’m used to (which is saying something), but totally worth it. I can’t wait for next year’s jam.

Choice Thoughts on Game Design

gaming_diceGames are all about choices. The famous game designer Sid Meier is often quoted (or misquoted, depending on who you ask) as saying, “Good games are a series of interesting choices.” That’s great in the abstract, but I’ve recently been asking myself, “What’s an interesting choice?”

As often happens when I ask myself questions, I give myself answers. I would say that an interesting choice is meaningful, informed, and limited.

  • Meaningful Choice: Some choices in games just don’t matter: whether you’re X or O in tic-tac-toe; or the color of your character’s eyes in a computer RPG. None of these choices move you a step closer to victory. Other choices do move you down the victory trail, but are so obviously the correct choice as to be no choice at all. (“Do you want to play the card that will score you 10 points, or give it to your opponent?”) These are two extremes, but neither are particularly meaningful.

  • Informed Choice: The players should know what effect their choice will have on the game. Asking a player to blindly choose between Door #1 and Door #2 with no clue as to what’s behind those doors is unfair to the player, and unfun if the door she chooses has a hungry tiger behind it. (A real challenge with this issue is that new players will never be as informed as experienced players, and some choices that look blind to newbies actually have effects that become clear over the course of the game. You can address this by adding more tips and examples to the rulebook, but that adds to rules bloat, so that’s not always the right way to go. Like I said, it’s a real challenge.)

  • Limited Choice: Ah, the classic problem of analysis paralysis — that phenomenon when a player is so overwhelmed with choices, his turn takes forever as he ponders the ramifications of every choice he could make. Now some players are just slow (*sheepishly raises hand*), so you can’t avoid this altogether, but it’s something to keep in mind. If possible, don’t front-load the choices, but let the player’s decision tree grow over time.

Obviously, I’m just scratching the surface here, mostly talking to myself as I try to turn vague game-design proverbs into somewhat practical advice. Have I succeeded? Try out the newly-repaired comment box below and let me know.

Happy Birthday, Baby Jax

Recycle me!It’s the baby’s birthday, and he’s crying. He’s often crying, though rarely for very long. He’s a happy child, full of smiles and laughter and silliness, with more personality than I’d expect from someone who can’t speak and barely walks. It’s hard to believe it’s been a year since he was born.

It doesn’t feel like a year. It feels like… well, like it’s always been this way. I vaguely remember a time when he’d stay put when I put him down, and a time when he was asleep more than he was awake, but the time before he was here is all shadows and smoke.

Spending all day with a baby is humbling. He has problems I can’t fix (“Why are you crying?”), issues I can’t understand (“Why are you crying now?”). Biological needs that, regardless of my schedule, need to be met. Diapers. Bottles. Burping. He’s gross, needy, and unbearably cute; I’m stripped of all dignity in his presence.

There are sacrifices involved in working from home with a baby. Contracts and projects that take me out of the house during the day (or over multiple days) are a challenge. Long-term on-site contracts are out of the question. And there are days when my productivity is a joke, and I find myself scrambling before dawn the following day to make up for time lost to caring for a clingy, screaming infant who refuses to nap even though he’s so very, very tired.

But he’s bold, curious, and fun to have around. He’s never really been sick. No ear infections, no colic, no signs that the trauma of his first few days outside the womb has had any lasting effect on him. And like I said, he’s happy far more than he’s not. Healthy and happy. I can’t ask for more, and I’m infinitely grateful for what I have.

Happy birthday, little man. I’m looking forward to see what the next year brings us.