Lessons from the Con: Building Worlds

At Tacticon, I had a great time sitting on a panel with other game creators as we answered questions from each other and from the people attending the panel about creating worlds for our adventures and campaigns. The discussion was interesting enough, but one member of the audience asked why we don’t write more open adventures.

The question stopped me in my tracks and I immediately realized two things. The first thing was that I have read far too few of my fellow game writers’ adventures and I need to change that quickly. Secondly, it never occurred to me because I write a lot of open world adventures, most of them are sand box style adventures. I asked that and the discussion lead to even that not quite being enough for the participant.

And I thought: it’s already an open world, how more open can it be? The answer was that the gamer wanted every possible contingency planned for. Which, is likely untenable. But it lead the discussion to a new direction.

How much is too much when working on game design? At what point does the writer’s job end and the DM’s job take over?

The answer of course is that it depends. W.H. Lewis (the brother to C.S. Lewis) has a wonderful expression that says “To say that the shoe is on the other foot is to speak not only of shoes, but of feet.” I believe that that expression is particularly applicable to game design, and on two levels. When a professional is writing a game, we are writing it for a large market. We have our target audience that graciously buys our stuff because they like our style or they like our settings, or even just for inspiration, skills, edges, gear, or whatever else we write about. We have our fans, and for the most part, we love our fans (and if you’re reading this, that probably includes you….thanks for being awesome!). That shoes and feet expression applies to writing from every side of the equation because it encapsulates writing for home, writing for the public, and also how our players at home view the adventure and players in the world.

So we write because of what the market wants and because of our own skill sets, experiences, and interests. But we have to write for a large market. We aren’t necessarily writing for our own gaming groups, we write for what we think will challenge other players and other gamers all over the world. Sometimes we do well, sometimes we fail. But no matter what, it’s different than writing for our home groups because we don’t know how every gaming group is going to view the situation or what they have done in the past.

Writing for a home group is a tailor-made experience. You, as a writer and as a GM, know what they are capable of as individuals, as a team, and you know what their goals are. In general, it is much easier to write an adventure for a group of friends than it is to write one for a group of strangers in design alone. Other facets include the level of details and context for friends vs. a group of strangers.

Writers that want to put in too many details also face two perils. The first is that if the PCs take a short cut somehow, they have all of this work that hasn’t been utilized, and may never been utilized by any group. The other danger is that you may put in too many details and it feels less sandboxy, less open, and more like a linear path. Players, generally, don’t like feeling like their game is on rails. They want choices, even if the choices are extremes or crappy. They want to be able to explore and feel that they are making a difference in the game world via their characters.

That balance must be struck, and it is delicate. As a writer, you will find your own style, your own way of doing what you love doing, and you will find fans. You can’t please everyone out there, but that’s not the point. The point is to do what you do, find ways to do it better, and to deliver the best that you can every single time you put an adventure out there, whether you’re at your own personal table, or writing for hundreds of other game tables across the world.

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