Murdering & Acquiring #12: Being a Designer
This is my twelfth blog post on New World Alchemy. I never know when you should mark the one year anniversary of something. Does my one year anniversary in blogging on game design have to be tied to the date of the first blog post? Are twelve blog posts, one each month, one year of blogging? I’m going to go ahead and call this my one year anniversary.
For my one year anniversary blog, I’m going to delve into something a little different. I’m going to talk about being a game designer, as opposed to designing a game. I can hear your thoughts as your read that. “Aren’t you talking about the same thing? Aren’t you just rearranging words?” Not really, at least not in my way of thinking.
For the purposes of this blog post, “designing a game” is about the ins and outs, the daily ups and downs, of designing a game. Developing a concept. Creating rules. Building a world. Producing content. Playtesting that content. Getting feedback and revising the game.
“Being a game designer” is about the peripheral stuff, the things that AREN’T the nuts and bolts of actually creating the game. These other things are just as much a part of designing as are writing rules, playtesting, and revising the game. They play into the act of designing the game, but they’re separate, in a way.
This blog post will delve into these other aspects of being a designer (or undertaking any other creative endeavor, for that matter). This is a list of things I’ve learned about being a designer that don’t have to do with the actual act of creating the game in specific terms. I offer them as advice to anyone out there who is looking to design something, be it a tabletop RPG or anything else. The list is by no means all inclusive. It’s just the things that I’d like to impart now as I reflect on a year or so of designing my own RPG.
You need to trust yourself. If you’re delving into a creative endeavor, it’s sort of assumed that you have a modicum of experience with the thing you’re creating. You need to believe that you have the chops to do the thing you’re doing.
Trust your knowledge. You know the thing you want to design. For me, I can say I know tabletop RPGs pretty well. I know that I need to trust my knowledge of RPGs. This doesn’t mean that I don’t need to learn new things. It just means that I should trust what I already know until such time as it proves to not be something I should trust.
Trust your experience. I’ve been playing and GMing RPGs for over two decades. In that time, I’ve designed a LOT of stuff –characters, worlds, adventures, campaigns, game systems, etc. Additionally, I’ve been lucky enough (and I would dare say, skilled enough) to actually make money designing for RPGs on a professional level.
I’ve received a lot of feedback during that time, from players, fellow GMs, and industry professionals. I’ve learned things at every turn and I need to trust that experience.
Trust your instincts. I know what I want Murders & Acquisitions to be, mostly anyway. While the game has and will continue to evolve, I know that I need to trust my instincts on what M&A is and on what I think it can become.
Again, I can read your thoughts. “You just said I should trust myself. What gives?” While you need to trust yourself, you also need to doubt yourself when it’s appropriate to do so.
If your playtesters are telling you something doesn’t work, look into it. If your instincts tell you something is wrong with the game, you need to be willing to trust THAT instinct. You’re not perfect and neither am I. Things are going to be imperfect and I know that. So I need to be willing to doubt what I’ve done so far and make adjustments.
There will come a point (probably multiple points) when your interest in what you’re designing wanes a bit. It’s natural and to be expected. Real life will get in the way and you’ll have to ramp yourself up to get back into the swing of designing after a hiatus where little was accomplished. You’ll get stymied on some part of the design and set it aside for a while, possibly leaving you thinking it’s never going to be something you can solve.
You need to find ways to stay excited about what you’re working on. Nothing kills a project faster than a lack of enthusiasm. How can you stay excited? Here are some thoughts.
If you’re stuck on something and feel like abandoning it, run the problem past some friends or fellow gamers. They might offer an idea or two for a solution. They might simply reinforce that they like the thing you’re designing and want to see more.
If you’re having trouble getting back into the swing after letting things sit for a bit, take some time to read through what you’ve already created. Rediscover the things you love about the game. I’ve done this on several occasions, and it never fails to get me back on track.
If you’re simply burned out, take a little time off. Play some other games. Read. Hang out with friends. Find inspiration wherever you can find it. Promise yourself that you’ll come back to your design. Set a deadline for when you’ll get back into it. And hold yourself accountable to that deadline.
Grow a Thick Skin
You’re going to get feedback on the thing you’re designing and it’s not all going to be praise. Every playtester/reader is going to find things they don’t like and many (hopefully all) of them are going to tell you. And sometimes that feedback will sting.
You absolutely have to grow a thick skin. Don’t just shrug off the comments. Let them percolate in your head. Do something else and come back to the negative feedback later.
I’ve grown a pretty thick skin in my time freelancing professionally. The internet age allows people the world over the ability to share their thoughts – good or bad – on the thing you’ve created. And the anonymity of the internet makes it so they can be completely honest, sometimes even rude, with no fear that they’ll ever have to explain themselves in person.
The first time I sent M&A materials out for critique by playtesters and RPG professionals, I received a pretty negative response to certain aspects of Murders & Acquisitions…from a designer for whom I have a great deal of respect. It stung. It stung a lot. But I didn’t shrug it off. I set it aside, focused on other things for a little while, and then came back to his feedback. As it turns out, he was completely on target with his criticism. I took my lumps and set about fixing the problems.
Know When to Put Down the Chisel
Centuries ago, Leonardo da Vinci said something regarding creative endeavors that really stuck with me. I offer it here, paraphrased in the form I have used most often.
No work of art is ever finished, only abandoned.
You can tinker with something forever, but that’s not going to make it “finished.” It’s never going to truly be finished. There will come a time when you simply have to put down the chisel and say, “that’s as good as it’s going to get.”
This applies to the overall endeavor. There will come a time when I have to say, “This is as good as Murders & Acquisitions is going to get” and move on to the final editing and publishing process.
This also applies to milestones within the process. As I was preparing materials for this round of playtesting, I had to put down the chisel and move on with sending out the materials. My playtesters are almost certainly going to point out shortcomings in areas that I know need work. But if I tinkered and tweaked any more on those things, I was never going to get the game into my playtesters’ hands. I had to cut my losses and move on.
Enjoy the Little Successes
This is the best piece of advice I have to offer. There will be times when things go exactly as you had hoped. There will be times when you hit milestones that are very important to you. There will be times when you receive great feedback or affirmation from others. There will be times when an idea in your head makes its way onto the page, fully fleshed out and lovingly crafted, with practically no effort.
Take the time to enjoy these moments.
Here’s an example from my freelancing work. On July 17, 2013, I submitted the first draft of Slaark’s Crown, an 11,500-word adventure for D&D 4E, to be published in Dungeon Magazine online. A few weeks later, I received word that my manuscript had been accepted as is and was on its way to final editing and layout. This had never happened to me for anything longer than about 4000 words in all my time freelancing for RPGs. No rewrites. No tweaking needed on my end. It felt really good and I allowed myself to enjoy it.
I’ve recently sent out game materials to three playtest groups who will be running through a four-adventure Murders & Acquisitions mini-campaign. Additionally, I’ve sent the core rules to three others who don’t have regular gaming groups but who have expressed interest in giving the game a “read & critique.” When I sent everything out, I had a moment of true satisfaction. After weeks of revising the rules and writing adventures, they were in the hands of actual people, people who would run games and provide feedback. It was a great feeling.
In an effort to give myself another little success, I offer up the Employee Manual and Supervisor Manual for Murders & Acquisitions here on New World Alchemy. This is the first time I’ve offered up the entire rule set publicly.
These are the exact documents I sent to playtesters recently. If you’re interested in playtesting M&A, leave a comment here on New World Alchemy.
That feels pretty good. I’m going to sit back and enjoy the feeling for a while.
And then I’m going to trust myself, doubt myself, and get excited about moving forward with even more Murders & Acquisitions.