The Shrine of Simplicity: An Approach to Game Design
There are a lot of ways to approach game and adventure design. I’m going to share my standard approach with you today. You’ll find it simple which thematically reinforces said approach, because it’s all about keeping things simple.
Now, you might immediately say I’m co-opting the KISS (Keep it simple, stupid) philosophy, but that is not entirely true. A lot of times the simplest and most elegant things require a huge amount of work. What we as designers and developers should do is make certain the information is two-fold:
1. Make certain the information is distilled down into a comprehensive form.
2. Present said information in a palatable way.
This is not saying designing and developing is easy. On the contrary, some of the things which people regard as intuitively obvious or oh, so simple can often be chalked up to good design and extensive playtesting. While anyone might have the surface idea of creating an analogous damage track for mental damage as well as physical, there is a lot more to what goes on under the surface. High concept is often easy. It’s the execution which can be a real bear. This is also why our projects have taken quite awhile. We poke and prod and work out the bugs, so you don’t have to. Naturally, development becomes more rapid for us as we expand our library of assets and learn principles which can readily (if not easily) be transferred from one system to another. [1. For example, if you can skin a rabbit, odds are you can skin another furred creature of some sort.]
The second part is the presentation of said information. A lot of my comrades and cohorts in the industry subscribe to lavish presentation. And, I’ll admit, said elements can add a lot to a game. However, starting in 201o, I made bold plans for the company to move towards something which better suited my sensibilities and, as it turned out, a lot of yours as well. Why? For me, what it comes down to is game play. I’ve said this before. Content is king. By stripping away a lot of the embellishments, we are better able to bring attention to the rules, which aren’t just thrown on the page. Some folks think simple is easy and simple can be easy. Elegant requires a lot more work. The page breaks, the call outs, the kerning, the spacing, and all these other things become more important, if anything, when one has little embellishments, and are not as art heavy. It’s like three platters resting on a long table adorned with a white tablecloth bear more presentation weight individually than the same table overladen with a cornucopia of goodies. Attention to detail is important when well placed.
By the same token, certain details ultimately don’t matter. If I bend a rule at a convention game (in the name of fun) or if I use the shorthand in a back story of your character being in the IRA and not the Provisional IRA (which, according to Wiki also uses the same initials). The odds are it’s not going to make a difference to anyone if it’s just a bit of info to round out your character other than merely saying you’re an Irish Demolitions Expert. I mention this as a well-intentioned fan sent out an email “correcting” me on this particular matter. He was concerned for me that it was coming out as such in a published form when I had stated I would probably update and rerelease these characters (as they had originally dropped in Starfall Jungle). The thing is, only one person, a UK native, Simon Lucas, pointed out these particulars to me ages ago and the adventure, which sold quite well, I might add, never generated a single email or cry of outrage.
I’m merely using this as an example. It’s up to each designer to decide where the line is and how far is too far and how not far enough is just a nice way of saying we’ve come up short.
I’ll give you one further anecdote. When I researched gun laws in Charleston in the 1920s, it wasn’t a lot of fun. I don’t mind doing research, but the business side of me was arguing with the academic side of me about investment and returns or, in other words, did this information even matter? In complete honesty, it does. Sure, it’s a made up game of fighting Mythos monsters at the end of the day, but if you can’t approach your subject matter with an appropriate amount of respect and gravitas, you’re setting yourself up for failure before you write one word. In the end, my days of research and phone calls was distilled down to a handful of paragraphs which lends a certain realism to your game when you play. This attention to detail ensures you are playing in Charleston in this period, not some other city in some other time. Anchors are important. They keep us from drifting. If you carry too many anchors, you’ll sink before you even leave harbor. Chew on that a bit. Simple can be complex. It just has to be refined and broken down for easy consumption. [2. Perhaps a post for another day.]
I strive to ensure we keep to our mission statement and am happy to know our design approach and our philosophy appeals to a lot of you. I’ll add, I’ve received far more personal emails and comments by folks who really appreciate our design aesthetic than I ever did when we were going for a more traditional look and feel. It all depends on what you’re wanting to put in and what you’re wanting to get out of your good works.
Until next time, I bid you, dear reader, adieu!