Broad Strokes or Fine Lines: A View from the Trenches
You are an artist, a creator of worlds. You have a palette of infinite colors and you have brushes made from the hairs of a thousand camels. You are ready to do battle with the canvas. You may slug down some coffee, drink a coke, or imbibe a thousand Red Bulls (one in honor of each dead camel) to prepare yourself for the act of creation.
When you approach the canvas, however, you are afraid. Nausea starts in the pit of your stomach, and soon spreads its paralysis throughout your body, and eventually into the recesses of your brain labeled creativity, bringing you to a stand still. Too many choice can be as bad as no choices at all. You need to focus, pick up a brush, and start slathering paint. You do not have the time to stare in a Zen-like fashion at the screen. This is the 21st century. You must be a shark of words. To cease moving is to cease living. Grab a brush and get going.
Forget about all the camels for a moment who died for those brushes, and divvy the brushes into two categories. You’ve got the big brushes which are good for slapping a lot of paint down quickly, and you’ve got those tiny brushes perfect for detail work. Now with the choice narrowed down to two, you can approach this project sensibly. Do you need to slap paint down first in a broad sense or do you need to get to the detail work right away? See? Using this metaphor, you already know the answer. Doing detail work immediately is plain silly and counterproductive because when it comes time to cover the broad areas, unless you slow down a lot, you’re likely to cover up some of the detail work, and have to do it all over again.
We’ve all likely read discussion talking about top-down and down-up development. I can appreciate those as thought-provoking, but jettison those ideas for the moment. You can return to them if you want to. I don’t. Here’s what I do.
1. Prepare your mental work space: I begin with a project name. It doesn’t overly matter if the name changes later (it generally doesn’t for me), but you need something to sink your teeth into. Look at the title like the anchor or the canvas, whatever gets you through the day. Just jot something down. If you’re using a computer, you’re going to need a file name anyway, so pick something at least memorable enough for you to find it later on. If you’re working on a game about hemophiliac heroes, I don’t care if you call it Bravo Bleeder Brigade or Blood Types, just get something down there, and let’s get going!
2. Start with broad strokes: Let’s roll with Bravo Bleeder Brigade. Using this name, we have some suspicions about what the game could be about. That’s a good thing. Broad strokes do not have to be meaningless, they just aren’t the fine points of minutiae introduced in the next step. A few broad strokes we can use for this setting are as follows: Era: WWI, Style: Gritty, Genre: Superpowers. As a matter of fact, those are three good categories to have when you’re addressing any new setting: era, style, and genre. You can also begin thinking of themes at this stage, or wait until later. I tend to start thinking of some now, and they are usually in the form of an elevator pitch (y’know, sell me in ten seconds or YAWN). For B3, we could go with things like: “war is hell”, “the battlefield has a new breed of heroes”, or “death is in air”. None of these really are grabbers, so we can sometimes reflect back on the name. Bravo Bleeder Brigade sounds a bit more tongue and cheek and doesn’t sell me as a gritty war RPG, so let’s take another stab at it, and try Blood Loss. Okay, that one grabs me much harder and can be evocative of harsher bits of the genre, such as Saving Private Ryan or a dozen other war movies. This lets us know “Death awaits around every corner” and “Last Battalion”. Let’s go with that as our complete name: Blood Loss: Last Battalion…”Kill or be killed” will be our tag line. That’s workable.
3. Introduce themes: We’ve already seen the inkling of themes, but let’s continue our exploration. Our heroes are fighting in a brutal war, in a brutal time, and they have been given a bit of an edge for they are super, but we already know the super powers they have aren’t going to make them any tougher. This is definitely an angle we can work with. The characters deal with the horrors of war, become changed by war, and know killing is the only way out. What if using their powers actually causes them to bleed, so what enables them to use their powers also is killing them in the process. What if they can use their enemies’ blood as restoratives? We’re not talking vampires in the classic sense, but they would drink blood, and they would have ghoulish and cannibal countenances. No one would want to associate with them. Their nicknames could be such as “Bone Patrol” or “Ghoul Troop”. There is a lot we can sink our teeth into here. No pun intended.
4. Do the necessary detail work: Now we have the broad strokes out there and some workable themes, this is the time where you start placing boundaries, establishing parameters, and decide your focus. Dealing with all the war theaters is too much canvas, so you can narrow in on a little slice of the war. You can restrict it to one theater, one campaign, or particularize it all the way down to one little occupied town on the fringes of the war and what happens when our heroes get there. You have to particularize what powers are available, how they work, and how the characters can regain their strength. You have to decide on existing rules sets, building your own from the ground up, or a combination of the two. The detail work, while more time consuming than the broad strokes, is where everything falls into its proper place.
5. Keep your promises: Once you’ve completed the writing work. You need to make certain you’ve dealt with everything you set out to do fairly. In Blood Loss: Last Battalion, if the characters don’t risk death regularly, you have failed. If the mechanics of the setting, do not properly mirror the atmosphere of your words, you have failed. If the words are whimsy and the combat is deadly, you have failed. You are dancing through minefields with blindfolds on after drinking a fifth of whiskey on an empty stomach. You do have a metal detector, but you’re still playing it by ear and are a bit drunk on your own words. One wrong step. And boom. That’s why the final part of the equation can be so very, very important.
6. Give unto others: Just like one of our super sad sack soldiers, you aren’t alone. You’ve got the rest of the Bone Patrol with you. It’s important for you to look out for each other so none of you die. This is where your playtesters come in. I don’t care if they are friends or family or some folks you met on the internet, they need to have some skills or they may take you down the wrong path of the minefield or out of the minefield altogether in another direction. These have to be folks you trust. Folks who will not tell you “that’s fine” and pat you on the back while pointing you directly at a bomb and give you an “attaboy!” while bits of your body fly about like shrapnel. You want them to challenge you. You want them to give you good insight. You want them to critique you, but you want them to be able to back up their statements. If you have the right squad, you’ve got a team of demolition experts who disarm these friggin’ mines so no one has to die at all. These guys are hard to come by and, no, you can’t use my squad. Go find your own.
As I adjust my gas mask, fasten my bayonet, and gleefully hop back into the trenches, I bid you adieu!