An Extended Metaphor: My Philosophy for Game Design
The inside of the Bardic Guildhouse in Studeolf was thick with papers, scrolls and vellum. Candles made of wax flickered in the corners of the room as – to ward off the late year chill – the windows were shut and shuttered, lending an air of closeness to an already small office. Crammed into the seats scattered among the mounds of unfinished paperwork were the three bards. One of them sipped a flagon of faintly glowing ale – her face easing as distilled boredom buzzed through her head.
Boredom ale is fantastic for headaches, you see.
Entering the room with a clatter of sliding doors and a faint cough, the local administrator of the Guild of Bards entered – his face decorated with a lightly trimmed set of mustaches and-
The bard in the leftmost seat turned to face the fourth wall of the room and said, “So, what is feeling?”
I stopped my narration and looked across the gaming table at – for the sake of privacy, his name has been changed – my friend Ian. Ian was tapping the roughly done character sheet (really, more a collection of scribbles than anything else) and pointing at some skill he had taken during the rushed character creation that had presaged the alpha test of my roleplaying game. The game’s basic concept had come to me after reading a YA romance novel and watching Titanic for the first time.
(Aside: YES! I know, I didn’t see it when it came out due to…honestly, I don’t know anymore. I just knew that it existed for years and finally, after realizing it was on Netflix, decided to sit down and watch. And holy crap, Titanic is amazing. Like, I feel like I’m a good twenty years behind, but that movie has FEELS. Like gut punch to the heart feels. Yeah, it’s melodramatic and overdone. Almost like the narrator was remembering when she was beautiful and young and subtly enhancing the story with little flourishes. Also, every last one of you cynical motherfuckers who goes, ‘hurr hurr hurr, they could have both fit on the plank’, NO! You go back and you WATCH the movie! They CLEARLY showed that if both Jack and Rose tried to get on the plank, the plank would capsize. Jeeze, people.)
The passion that filled me for the game lead me to designing the rough outline with my co-author, Mike (also changed for privacy), and launched me into an alpha test. Because that is the axiom of all game designs, from board games to video games: Test early. TEST OFTEN! And in this test, my friend Ian had taken a skill that let him ask questions about the motivations, feelings and recent activities of every NPC (non-player character) that he met.
And so, for the entire alpha, Ian asked as many questions as he could.
Let’s roll back a bit. When you are designing a game – as opposed to writing a story or shooting a movie – you are not just saying what happens. In a novel, I can write that two characters start to fall in love. In a game, you need to have the players actually work with you to bring that kind of a story off – and it is amazingly difficult to force anything out of players. The reason is simple: They don’t play to enjoy your story. They play to have agency – something many of us sorely lack in at least some aspect of our lives.
We’re amazingly (kinda) free (sorta) in this country…but the constraints of reality still apply. We cannot choose to ignore gravity, or decide the fates of nations. Hell, some of us aren’t even born with the right genitalia for us to feel comfortable and happy in our own bodies.
So, we play games to tell stories that we cannot experience in the world – if it is as simple as being a pretty girl, or as complex as manipulating Empires and Kingdoms with shadowy whispers. And so, what do you – as a game designer and game master – get to control? Well, you get to control what the hell your game is about. And that is where all game design should start (at least when it comes to roleplaying games. Don’t ask me if this works with video games—the last time I tried to code, my computer filed for divorce.
In my game, I said: “I want a game where FEELS are important!”
(Because I had just seen a movie and read a book wherein FEELS were the primary driving force of the plot … well, feels and icebergs, I suppose…)
So, I had a base ground level starting point for what I want my game to be about. But since a game where feels are important can be anything from a RPG wherein you play as bored housewives, to a space opera with laser swords, I decided to be more specific. I narrowed it down to this: “I want a game where you play as YA protagonists, where the intense mélange of emotions that make YA so fascinating to me and others are part of a magic system that is integral to the world.”
From there, I and my co-author charted out the rough ideas of how magic works, and created a setting around it. Every time a question came up, I could go back to the basis of the concept. Do we set it in the modern day or in a fantasy world? Well, I wanted the magic system to be integral to the world. Unless I wanted to make an alternate history, that means fantasy setting. Boom! Do we want other kinds of magic? Well, we want the FEELS MAGIC (called, for those who are interested, Synesturgy or Bardic Magic, depending on how educated the characters are) to be the most powerful magic.
Why? Well, because if you have bardic magic and you have hermetic magic, and hermetic magic can do more than bardic magic can do, then the players will rightly ask: “Why aren’t we playing wizards?”
And thus, we come back to the skill that I had put into the game. It fit something I wanted – for some characters to be astute observers, to be able to pick up stuff like Sherlock Holmes can, and deduce from the bits of information what is going on. But now, we come to why one tests early and tests often: Just because you design a system and set of mechanics to tell specific stories, doesn’t mean people won’t find a way to break it. Now, I know that the rules that I had in place for that skill kinda brought the game to an absolute crawling pace. Which was why Ian was using it that way – to demonstrate a problem with the system.
Fixing systems while keeping the ideas you had is always difficult. It is very easy to throw out the baby with the bathwater – but sometimes, you need to stop and actually think through what, exactly, your mechanics are doing to the players. How do they shape the play? How does it change the way people behave in your game? Players will tend to go for the most optimal strategy, but is that strategy what you want? Let us say I make a major mistake and it turns out that a super effective character in my RPG is…say…a racist buffoon who spews a constant stream of lies and ignorance.
Well, I’d need to do some design work, wouldn’t I?
About the Author
David Colby was born and grew up in a household and family so nice and wonderful that his early life was completely and utterly bereft of interesting drama beyond a single incident in high school when he slipped on some grass and damaged a very valuable sousaphone while trying to please his marching band instructor. To correct this, he took up writing and kept writing until he got halfway decent at it.
Currently laboring on works spanning science fiction, fantasy and all the bizarre fusions in between, David is publishing novels and short stories through Thinking Ink Press and Fiction Silicon Valley.