Anything’s Possible: The Black Hole of the Limitless

When one gets the opportunity to dig into a system, deconstruct it, and build it back up again, one can be overwhelmed by the endless possibilities. However, euphoria is fleeting, and you invariably find yourself faced with dilemmas. You have to consider your end goals very carefully, and then reverse engineer everything to make sure it achieves your end result.

While it might seem obvious to the seasoned developer, there are a number of factors you must evaluate in this most critical process, so you don’t end up having to “go back to formula” and start all over again. Here’s a workflow addressing various factors and concerns and a chronological flow of this type of design process.

1. Give existing material a careful read through: When I say careful here, I mean analyze and critique the core material. Core material can be what is covered in the main book of  a series or the canon of works which constitute a series. Some books often have their ideas evolve and you can get a sense of refinement and the direction the original creators took in their material. Also worth noting is the absence of materials as well as their inclusions. Ask yourself questions. Are things included or excluded by intent or accident? Take notes as what you foresee as potential obstacles and rough bits which could do with a bit of tweaking as well as points which seem unclear.

2. Play it as it as stands: To begin a proper conversation with the material, you must play it. I’ve gone and on about reading versus playing in the past, so I shan’t drone on about that now, but suffice it so things may play differently then you anticipated. This is especially true of systems with which you’ve little to no experience.

3. Have a postmortem: At the end of play, collect those thoughts you have on note cards or in a journal. You must jot them down in a way that won’t be nonsensical to you later. Get feedback from your group at this point. See what they liked, what they didn’t, and what could do with expansion (such as making some skills more collective (i.e. broader) and some more focused and detailed) or elimination altogether (some skills could be rolled into others, feeding into the expansion side of the equation if at all) .

4. Shave off the rough bits: If you’re refining something, rather than building it from scratch, this is an important and potential time consuming process. You can approach this particular point in several fashions: you can either carefully deliberate and make the changes you’ve gathered from the first three parts of this process, cobble them together in an intuitive fashion with great haste, or some combination thereof. Development is both analytical and instinctual at this point of the process, but you must be certain to not discount any ideas.

5. Collect your thoughts and establish the baseline: After step 4, you may find yourself with a hodge-podge of information. What to do, right? You give it form and structure. You establish a foundation of materials –you look for uniformity and quantify those elements which need it. You establish your formulas so you can proceed on further with the testing process. In other words, at this point, you should have firmly decided upon your design goals.

6. Internal/external playtesting: Go through it with your group (if you have one) or those individuals you have entrusted with the miasma you have cobbled together. See where it shines and where it runs under the bed crying. Go through steps 3-5 as many times as needed before you proceed on.

7. Extend as necessary: If you’re working with a baseline, but you have definite plans to extend the core outwards, now is where you add on the materials to make your setting shine. If you’re dealing with science fiction, now you introduce rules on space combat, the wonders of zero-g, aliens, and whatever other things you need to build the world around the core materials knowing full well you shouldn’t have to revisit core materials. This extension can quite justifiably be viewed as an overlay. Here is where you take the rules you so carefully crafted and refined, and provide information and details violating said rules as needed with Feats, Qualities, Talents, Edges, what-have-you.

8. Curse and recurse: You’ve staked many pains to get here, and now you must send it back up to Step 1 and give it as one more thorough going over. No one said this was gonna be easy. Maybe it will be, but that depends on how thorough you went through everything the first time. The more eyes you can get on your work, the better, but I’ll temper multiple opinions with caution and direct you to carefully consider the ninth, and final point.

9. Stand your ground: Eventually, you’ll have to maintain your positions and points of view and design decisions. If you’ve followed all the steps with due diligence, you should be able to do so with a clear conscience, and you’ll find you’ve navigated the development cycle without losing your mind. This is not the position with a great deal of flexibility. Here you’re more like mature bamboo, you might have a bit of give, but it shouldn’t be much. Everything should have been addressed before you’ve gotten here. At this point, you should have a sound system embracing your original design goals.

You may approach your own work from a different perspective, but this workflow should serve you in good stead. It gives you a structure to work within and steps you can tick off along the way. Some points may bleed over, and that’s okay. You have to give yourself the freedom to explore various and sundry bits, because good design should have passion as well as reason in the mix. While the possibilities are endless, you must give yourself some artificial boundaries along the way or you’ll find yourself unable to focus and achieve your end goals. Make a game you want to play following these steps, and I’m certain you’ll find an audience awaiting you at the other end of the journey. Until next time, I bid you, dear reader, adieu!

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