Roleplaying Creativity

I’ve been working as a freelancer in the role-playing industry for a little under twenty years now, but I have never designed a whole game. That’s about the only thing I haven’t done, and it’s an oversight I’d like to correct. I plan to talk about the design here on my blog, in the hope that some people will be interested, and my goal is to have a playable draft by the end of this year. I don’t expect to have a draft I’m ready to show anyone else by that point, mind. That’s the draft that I will try to run, to find out whether it actually is playable. However, since I plan to talk about things in detail, anyone who has read these posts will have a pretty good idea of what’s in the draft.

As I do plan to talk about details, and leave comments open on the posts, I need to set the ground rules concerning intellectual property. I’d quite like there to be some discussion and sharing of ideas, and so the ideas are for sharing on both sides. There’s no copyright in ideas anyway, and I can’t imagine that anyone would want to try to implement all of my ideas in a game. However, I can hope that I might say something that someone else finds inspiring, even in the “no, doing it that way is a terrible idea” sense, and I’m fine with that. Similarly, if you post comments it’s because you’re happy with me taking your ideas and running with them. No legalese, because I’m in Japan, so the legalese would have to be in Japanese as well. (In addition, I suspect that legalese to cover this would be horrifyingly draconian.)

Enough boring preliminaries; let’s talk about the game. I want to design the role-playing game that I want to play, but that no-one has yet published, to the best of my knowledge.

I want to design a roleplaying game about creating things.

Roleplaying itself is a creative hobby. However, the characters we play are almost invariably destructive or, at best, conservative. Heroes in Dungeons & Dragons act primarily by fighting and killing enemies. Player characters in Shadowrun are career criminals who steal the creations of others at the behest of their paymasters. They frequently kill people and blow things up while performing these thefts. Player characters in Call of Cthulhu are trying to preserve their sanity and stop blasphemous horrors from destroying the world. Player characters in the World of Darkness typically are blasphemous horrors, and the games are supposed to be about their struggles with themselves as much as with the other blasphemous horrors surrounding them.

However, this is not the sort of character I really want to play. I want to play characters who create things, whether institutions, items, or ideas, and then see their creations have an impact on the world. These character concepts are not well-supported by any of the games I’ve come across, all of which are mainly concerned with other activities. The game I know that does it best is Ars Magica. Part of the reason for that is that I’ve been writing for or managing Ars Magica for about 18 years now (my first published work was for it), and I’ve been doing my best to encourage it in that direction. However, even in Ars Magica, creation takes place in the downtime between sessions. I want to play a game where it’s the main focus.

I’ve been poking at this idea for several years, and it’s not trivial to make it work. However, I don’t think it’s impossible, so I anticipate that a lot of the posts I make about the game will be concerned with design elements that address this problem. That does mean that I don’t plan to get into the details in this post.

Since I am designing the game I want to play, marketability is not a concern. On the other hand, this is a game I want to play, so playability most certainly is a concern. I am going to ignore the central question of marketing: Why should anyone want to play this game? I want to play this game, and that’s enough for me. However, I am going to pay a lot of attention to what could be called the central question of game design: Given that someone wants to play the game, can they? That breaks down into a number of smaller questions, of which I can list several off the top of my head. Is it comprehensible? Do the rules actually support the activities the game aims to depict? Can the rules be used in actual play, without taking forever? (I think it was Ryan Dancey who described D&D as “thirty minutes of excitement packed into four hours”; I gather that the fourth edition has made significant progress with this problem.) Do the written materials make it possible to play the game — are they complete? Can an ordinary human being remember the relevant rules?

In short, I wouldn’t be bothered by a review that said that great game design was wasted on a boring concept. Actually, I’d be pleased with a review like that; I already know that some people won’t find the concept interesting, and one of them might well review the game.

There is another, less important, reason for writing a game with this concept. I am a little uncomfortable with games where you are expect to pretend to undertake unethical actions. This shouldn’t be overstated; I like Shadowrun, in which, as noted above, you play professional criminals, most of whom commit murder. On the other hand, I really wouldn’t want to introduce my daughter to, well, just about any role-playing game on the market today. Certainly not Dungeons and Dragons, let alone the World of Darkness. I think they’re both good games, and I’ve written for both of them, but I think they should both have a “mature audiences only” warning. The World of Darkness does, of course.

So, that’s another reason I want to write a game about creation. I want a game where I can write, on the front page, a disclaimer that looks like this:

This game is a work of fiction. However, if you wish to imitate your character, and claim the game as your inspiration, please go ahead. It will make the world a better place.

In the end, this may be the same reason as the first one. I don’t really want to play characters who go around killing things, so games based on that make me uncomfortable. Since no-one else is writing the game I want to play, I have to do it myself.

The real work will start in the next post.

Posted in Game Design, Roleplaying.

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