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Game Design the Collaborative Way

Game Design the Collaborative Way

Nicolas Logue designed the recent Open Design project, Blood of the Gorgon, a dark and thrill-packed adventure that recently shipped to its patrons. Here he offers some lessons learned and some final reflections on the Open Design process:

Gaming is not necessarily an art, but its close enough. The way it differs from painting or theatre is that its goal is obvious: Create good times for a group of people gathered around a table, sharing each other’s company, escaping the doldrums of their daily lives by stepping into other worlds. We are after fun. Or as I like to refer to it: The Fun.

Commonplace fun can be had doing almost anything, but really exceptional fun like “The Fun” can only be had around a gaming table… and perhaps in bed. I am always seeking The Fun. It haunts my dreams. Unless every player at my table is having The Fun, I have failed in my goal as gamemaster/game designer.

How does one attain The Fun? [More] One doesn’t. We do it together. And that’s a lot of what Open Design has been about for me. Open Design is the single most exceptional game design endeavor I have ever been apart of, and a testament both to the ingenuity of patrons, and the vision of Wolfgang Baur.

Too many creators lock themselves in and obsess over their own genius. The result is often crap. One thing I’ve always loved about theatre (and the reason it drew me in at an early age over other art forms) is its collaborative nature. No one does theatre in a vacuum. The playwright writes and hands his work over to a director who in turn collaborates with designers and actors and technicians to bring into being something that only exists for a few hours a night and is only shared with a select group of people. It’s both magical and ephemeral. As an experiential art form it creates pieces that later completely cease to be; that makes theatre all the more gripping.

Collaboration in Gaming
My wife, the single best director I’ve had the pleasure of acting for (one of the many reasons I married her), is fond of saying: A good film is forgotten, a good live theatre production haunts us forever. It’s not surprising that my wife believes great theatre comes not from one genius’ vision, but rather the careful crafting and collaboration of many. She invites other directors to watch run-throughs of her plays, invites audience members to pre-previews and gets their feedback. To her, the creation process isn’t hers alone, but belongs to a host of spirited and brilliant souls which she then harnesses to maximum effect. Her plays are stunning as a result.

A great game session is no different. No matter how “genius” the DM thinks his or her vision may be, it benefits from some good feedback from friends and fellow gamers, and when brought to the table, it has to be something that is not a complete work, but rather a ball of clay for the players to sink their fingers into and enjoy.

For every project I’ve ever written, the best part of the process is sharing it with fellow gamers or game designers and getting their input. I’ll never forget a Sunday evening after Gencon, when, while sitting in the Indianapolis airport and sharing some truly awful nachos with Tim Hitchcock, Quoth the Raven was born. I don’t think Tim was even aware of it, or aware of how without his presence that adventure and the subsequent Hell’s Heart would never have been, but the mere proximity of a like-minded designer and the joy of sharing brain-meanderings gave rise to powerful currents of creation in my sleep deprived brain (I never sleep more than 1 hour at a con… for the total five days… it does strange and wonderful things to me… trance dances and spirit quests and GenCon… they are of the same ilk).

Nachos and Sequels
I was looking over some old notes I had that never became a full on proposal for Dungeon magazine. It was about a killer, who writes manuscripts about his predations, and the twist of the adventure was that the players believed they were hunting him and protecting his new victim-to-be, but in truth, he had chosen the PCs themselves as his next target – this became alarmingly clear as he shared pieces of his burgeoning manuscript with them (left at crime scenes and delivered to the local paper). At this point, the concept had NOTHING to do with Viktor Saint-Demain. I was lamenting the fact that the writer-killer adventure had never really developed fully in my scatter-brain, and moments later I was scorning the prospect of doing a sequel to Chimes at Midnight, knowing that sequels can become pedantic retreads, and unless a truly brilliant new idea drives them, they fall dismally short of their predecessors’ genius.

Tim was insistent: “You should do a sequel. You could come up with something great!” I hemmed and hawed and he poked and prodded as only Tim Hitchcock can do (he is an amazing force of personality). My brain was afire. I could use the writer-killer idea as the core of the Chimes at Midnight sequel! Tim got on his plane, and my pen went to work. I didn’t stop writing notes for the entire plane ride home from Indianapolis to Hawai’i. The proposal for Quoth was turned in the next day, it was accepted a month or two later, and was written in record time. All thanks to sharing some shitty nachos with a fellow game designer.

The moral of the story: Listen to people. Welcome feedback. Welcome collaboration. In fact, you can easily do this with your own players. After every gaming session I run, I take feedback from my players. I ask if they had fun. But that isn’t enough: What was the best moment of the game for them? What aspect of their character’s involvement in the storyline excited them the most about the game? What were they dissatisfied with and why? Did my GMing suit their style of play? What could I do to make them more comfortable or enhance their play experience?

Sharing Your Campaign
Besides feedback from fellow game designers, it’s always a good idea before you even begin to plan your next campaign or adventure, to get some cues from your players. What do they want to play? What style of game? What kind of character would they enjoy playing? What kind of story opportunities do they want to have the options to explore?

If your players are thirsting for political intrigue and you deliver dungeon crawl, you’ve failed before the first die rolls. Collaborate on theme, backdrop, conflict, etc. You’ll find your players engaged in your game in ways you could never imagine before. Connect their PCs’ storylines to the plot, or better, create a plot that revolves around these PCs completely. Make them the starring characters, not just people who show up in a vexed town to fix their ills or save the princess.

Ask the PCs to create characters with lots of potential conflicts sewn into them. Make sure they have baddies in the wings: People who have old grudges against the PCs or their family. People in love with the people the PCs are in love with. People who want to be them so badly, they’ll kill them to take their place. Or maybe the PCs have similar issues with prominent NPCs. Make these conflicts the center of your campaign and now you’ve got some serious fireworks, and you have seriously motivated players.

The character-centric campaign, like Copernicus’ model, literally makes the PCs the bright burning stars of your adventures, and sets the world to revolving around them. In this case, approach your players ahead of time and figure out what they are interested in doing. Ask a few questions:

Do the characters all know each other? This can make for a fun theme. Maybe the PCs are the last surviving members of a mercenary company (or somehow connected to this company) and they are seeking vengeance on whoever betrayed them before their last battle (resulting in the company’s slaughter). Maybe the PCs are old childhood friends re-united (Inn of the Last Home style). Maybe they are escaped experiments of some evil wizard who did horrible things to them.

What is your character’s goal? What is their over-arching desire? What hopes do they have for themselves? What are they searching for? Are they out for vengeance against the masked man who burned their homestead to the ground? Are they determined to cure a strange wasting curse that threatens to sap their life away slowly? Are they searching for a sword that once belonged to their grandfather?

What is their flaw? True heroes are defined not by their gifts, but by their shortcomings. Every character should have something wrong with them. Maybe they are so blinded by their pride or sense of duty that they are abandoning their new pregnant bride while they quest for “honor.” Maybe they simply can’t function in the face of the tragedy they’ve suffered without a full skin of wine every day. Maybe they are racist beyond reason thanks to the murder of their family by a band of lunatic dwarves.

They’ve Given You Ammo: Use It
Think of everything your players tell you about their characters as ammunition and fuel for your campaign. Build your campaign around them exclusively. Forget your own ideas of that master plot, instead make it revolve around the PCs.

If the PCs are survivors of a mercenary company, make one of the major plot arcs of your campaign the discovery of who sold them out and who arranged for them to be trapped by enemy forces. Maybe an enemy at court wanted the mercenary company’s offensive to fail in order to put the Emperor in grave political danger, or worse, the Emperor’s own general orchestrated the company’s downfall because he saw them as rivals for his post.

The PCs might discover missives from their betrayer using a pseudonym, or track down the enemies who devastated their company and interrogate them, or perhaps the official who gave them their orders is in hiding and they need to track him down first to learn who told this traitorous scum to sell them out. Maybe they discover their entire battle plan had been passed to the enemy. Maybe this discovery comes by way of a veteran from the opposing army, who was likewise betrayed by his own superiors, and feels a kinship with the PCs now that the war is over. The enemy of the past is today’s ally. Both he and the PCs were just pawns in the schemes of corrupt bureaucrats on both sides of the war. They were ill used, and now it is time for payback.

If they are old friends returning to home, they may discover the hometown is now caught in a terrifying witch hunt, and their childhood friends who haven’t been burned alive are feverishly doing the burning in a fit of mad religious ecstasy. The PCs must figure out who is masterminding the witch hunt, ideally while saving family members from too much undue attention. One PC’s father, the town blacksmith, toils in the forge, making manacles now instead of horseshoes. He has watched his friends and even his own son (the PC’s brother) burn. Maybe he believes in the “devils” infesting people. He may be too afraid of losing his other children to oppose the inquisitors who have taken over. And maybe the Grand Inquisitor is an old friend of the PCs who left to find religion years ago in a distant Big City. He came back determined to “cleanse” the town of evil influence, but his goal was warped by a devil-in-disguise who turned the inquisitor’s zealousness against his own flock.

If the PCs are the escaped experiments of some evil wizard, they may discover that their purpose is something greater than simple experiments. They may have been built as weapons of mass destruction, ticking arcane time bombs with strange sigils that will eventually turn kingdoms to ashes. The PCs must undo the horrid magic worked on them and track down the evil wizard who turned them into walking apocalyptic weapons.

If a PC is out for vengeance against a masked man who burned their village to the ground, this is a great offer. Make it someone wildly interesting. Maybe even make it another PC’s father, or another PC themself.

If they are out to cure the strange wasting curse laid on their family line, then make the architect of the curse, an ancient lich, or better yet, their own ancestor who hated himself so much he wanted his family to suffer for his abhorrent crimes. Perhaps only divine intervention can cure the curse now. Perhaps the PCs must seek out the descendants of whomever their ancestor wronged, and do them some service to make up for the past crimes of their bloodline. Maybe these descendants are the current hated enemies of the PCs’ people, thus further complicating matters.

If they are searching for the lost sword of their grandfather, decide who has it. Make sure it is not just left in some tomb (boring), instead have some dark knight wielding it to spread death and woe across a far away land, thus sullying their grandfather’s legacy in a tide of blood (better).

If they leave their pregnant bride behind while they seek to restore their family honor, what happens to her? Does she have the child but cast it aside so she can marry another? Where does the child end up? Who does she marry? An evil warlord? Maybe a noble comes to her aid and takes her in, pregnant as she is. Seems fine until she finds out this noble has a penchant for demonology and is interested in the unborn child in her womb.

If the PC chooses to be doused with wine, make it affect them. Give them inaccurate information when they are drunk as a skunk, and let them reap the damages they cause in their inebriated haze. Throw some interesting situations their way that grate against the flaw they have chosen. If they are racist against dwarves, make it necessary to secure the aid of a nearby dwarf clan to overcome a common foe. Then sit back and let the drama ensue. As long as you center the action around your player’s PCs, there is no chance of boredom reigning, or a lack of motivation stopping your adventure cold.

Lessons of Open Design
In essence, approach every new campaign and gaming session like an Open Design project. Get advice from friends who aren’t playing or GMs online. Talk to your players about what they are looking to get out of the gaming experience, and don’t be afraid to draw use their feedback to influence your plots.

You may also decide at the outset of a campaign that the one GM to several players format is not what you are interested in. If you haven’t tried a round-robin campaign, I highly recommend you do so. As long as a few of your players are comfortable behind the GM screen, it can be fun to mix things up by creating a campaign where you hand the reins of gamemaster off to another person every so often, possibly every session.

I used this approach often in Shadowrun . For one particular long running campaign, we players each made three PCs with unique motivations, plenty of flaws (my group loves characters with lots of problems), varied contacts, skills and interests. Every time we played anyone could GM, and they would merely dream up a mission for which at least one PC of every player’s was useful and connected to the plot. The GM would advance our personal storylines even as we ventured through the perils and pitfalls of the specific mission we were assigned by our Fixer. This style of play was incredibly rewarding, especially because it mixed up the flavor from week to week.

Any GM develops a signature style after awhile, and by Round-Robin GMing we made sure that the flavor was always a little varied every time. This is also a great way to give newbie GMs a chance to step into the role briefly in a campaign they (and their players) are already very familiar and comfortable with. It’s a good training ground for those friends of yours who don’t have a lot of experience or confidence yet behind the screen.

I urge to bring the delicious lessons of Open Design into your home game, not just by using the adventure that the patrons and I created together, but also by harnessing the spirit of collaboration cultivated in the project, and bringing it to bear on your home group as well.

You may find that once you loosen your grip on the reins of your campaign just a little bit and let someone else come along for the creative ride, the adventures only get more exciting. Thanks to all the patrons of Blood of the Gorgon for having me on board. I had a great time working with all of you and I wish you good health and good gaming… really, what else in life do we need?

Drink Blood, Throw Dice…Get Your Game On!

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