Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Basic Questions

I don't discuss the "Big Subject" of Game Design much here, both because I think about it a lot as my "day-job" and I don't usually feel like preaching my particular version of the Faith. But I've been thinking about the basic questions you ask when you start on a game, a world, a novel, or a campaign, and I'm having a hard time doing better than a bit presented on J. Michael Straczynski's old SF show, Babylon 5.

In that show, it was revealed over time that there were two great elder races vying for power (The Vorlon and Shadows, but never mind that). How they defined the philosophies of those two races were the following two questions:


Now whether these statements match up with that those elder races were doing with the universe is a discussion for some B5 BBS somewhere. My point is that these two questions are a pretty good starting point for your game, and a pretty good touchstone for how you succeed in presenting your vision. If you can communicate those two points, you've got a chance of connecting with your ultimate audience.

Let's roll the tape on a couple classic RPGs to test this out:

D&D and its linear descendants:
WHO ARE YOU? I am an adventurer
WHAT DO YOU WANT? I want to kill monsters and take their stuff.

Vampire the Masquerade
WHO ARE YOU? I am monster
WHAT DO YOU WANT? I want to be moral despite my monstrosity (angst!)

Shadowrun (and a lot of Cyberpunkish games)
WHO ARE YOU? I am an freelance criminal.
WHAT DO YOU WANT? I want to do what I have to do to get paid.

Call of Cthulhu
WHO ARE YOU? I am an investigator.
WHAT DO YOU WANT? I want to poke around the edges of sanity and try not to go mad.

Sometimes the answers may explain the challenges in the campaign:

Empire of the Petal Throne.
WHO ARE YOU? I am a citizen in a fantasy empire. Which is really in the future, and the advanced technology is magic, or extradimensional manipulation which is effectively magic, and has a Mayan/Egyptian vibe.
WHAT DO YOU WANT? I want to kill monsters and take their stuff.
(Need to communicate involved, non-traditional world and how it is different. Also, second statement doesn't jive up well with the first)

WHO ARE YOU? I am former military personnel in a stellar empire.
WHAT DO YOU WANT? I want to own a spaceship, and so will do things so I can pay off my ship.
(Limited adventure room, short-term goals)

This approach can also open doors and show the nature of your world - Go back up to the top with D&D - What is an adventurer? How is it different than a citizen or a criminal? What defines "monsters"? When are you justified to take their stuff? Some of the flexibility in answering these questions (and there are more than one set of answers for any question) defines where you think the world is going.

Its just a start, and now I'm walking around, holding up this lens to various games and seeing how effective it is. And sometimes the answers reveal as much about how I view that game or genre as it does about the game itself.

More later,