Banshees on Acid: Thoughts on Game Design
Getting the Reader’s Attention
See what I did there? I hooked you. Banshees? Acid? You had to know what I was talking about. Didn’t you?
Well, today I’m going to address something that has nothing to do with either of the two, but we’ll talk about the effect those words conjured up in your mind, and how that worked to grab you unrelentlessly by the throat and pull you into this mad shamble of prose.
You have an idea, right? You want to commit yourself, but you can’t afford an asylum, so you decide to get into RPGs. You have this conception for a rules set, a setting, a something, we’ve never seen before which will blow our ever-lovin’ minds, don’t you? Well, don’t keep us in suspense. Amble on over. Mind your head on that sign. See it? Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here? Yeah. That was made for us suckers. Come on in, there’s plenty of room, but just because the water is warm, doesn’t mean you have what it takes. I’m not here to put those little floatie wings on you, push you around the pool, and squee while you flail about. There’s plenty of internet for that. I’m going to give you some knowledge today. I’d like to think it’s common sensical (but, then, I’d also like to think the car in my driveway is a Ferrari, but it’s not. Heck, it’s not even a car–it’s a truck).
This idea you have needs to have a little something setting it apart. I don’t care if your world is on the beak of a plaid ostrich or the resolution system uses Funyuns and Tequila (hmm, you might have my interest with that), but you need something to get my attention. You’re competing with a lot out there. Heck, even if this is for a homebrew, you’re competing for your friends’ attention. If you offer up soy sauce and peanut butter sandwhiches, odds are they are going to skip the next meal you invite them too. So, give us something shiny, and we’ll at least meander over and give it a gander. (Mind you, we’re rather stingy with our geese.)
For most writer types, the pitch is the easiest thing to come up–or it should be if you train your brain properly. It’s where you smash things together and see what you get. Iron Dynasty is samurai steampunk. Instantly those words conjure up specifically what I’m talking about. As an aside, it’s interesting how steampunk’s star is on the rise: ID was conceived way back in 2004. Agents of Oblivion was Call of Cthulhu meets Mission: Impossible. It’s kinda fun once we get going and it’s an evolutionary process. Just remember, the pitch can be slightly longer which generally means you haven’t gotten a sense of the craft yet, your idea sucks, or it’s something unique. RunePunk falls in one or more of those categories, but at its core it is Stormbringer meets Steampunk. I really like steampunk, but then I like a lot of things. Even if you’re not outwardly planning to pitch this to anyone, you need to distill the idea down. Back when Savage Worlds was a closed system, I pitched Shane Hensley my idea for RunePunk, and it was pretty much those three words I showed you already. If you can distill an idea down to its essence, it generally means you have a good handle on it. If it takes you longer to do that, it often means you’ve got some refining to do–which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you want to bore someone, tweet about waiting on an airplane. I hear people dig that.
Once you’ve got the idea down to its essence, compressed into its pitch form, you have a destination. It’s the GPS coordinates of your imagination representing a very specific place. This place could be Tanelorn, Mega-City One, ScatterPoint, or wherever. I don’t care yet. You’re the writer, you have to make me care, but that comes later. You have to make certain this idea is something you’re gonna want to live with. If you don’t like tentacles, don’t monkey with Cthulhu. If you’re not down with some oil leaking on your magic, hands off steampunk fantasy. I’ve had the luxury of working on what I’ve wanted to work on. Some of the ideas are quirky, I get that, and some of them are not, but they represent things I dig. I do not write –or publish, for that matter- things I do not thoroughly enjoy. I’m hard pressed to come up with anything I don’t get some sort of entertainment out of, but there are things I want to immerse myself in fully, and there are things which I appreciate and enjoy, but not something I’d consider doing myself (for whatever reason). Bringing this back, you have to have passion, you have to show you have passion in words, and deed. Let the execution sing with your undying love for The World of Plaid Ostrich, and maybe, just maybe, we’ll join in the chorus.
I’ve been told I have a knack for grabbing people by the throat and pulling them into my work. Bully for me. I’ll let you in on a little secret. It’s a practiced skill set. No one comes by it naturally. Every great writer out there had to put his butt in a chair, learn to hold a pencil, and learn to write their A, B, C’s. You may not think about it, but it’s true. Certainly, there are varied degrees of talent, and people have personal tastes (and we won’t get into the whole nature versus nurture argument, this is not that kind of show), but every single one of us starts at the same baseline. How we advance is as much determination as anything else. What I’m wanting to tell you is to go big or go home. Be bold. Be fresh. Be brash. Make me want to play this thing. When I read those first words in your book, I want to feel the sword slicing my enemy’s throat, as his blood sprays across a sky erupting with plaidness. I want to take those three Funyuns and shove them in my mouth while doing two fingers of Tequila and see what magic happens. Grab your reader by the throat. And. Don’t. Let. Go.
I’ll end on a high note, and we’ll talk about some more of this jazz next time or in the near future.
And as our car runs out of gas, I pause for a refill, and bid you adieu!